ANNAPOLIS – Late one September night, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe took to Twitter in a heat of rage toward a Maryland public official, crafting a series of responses about the same-sex marriage debate and what he felt was a serious violation of someone else’s First Amendment rights.
“The only way I can fathom spewing that type of shit out of your mouth is if your colon reversed flow and you vomited actual fecal matter,” read one of Kluwe’s tweets, directed at Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr., who had tried to silence a Baltimore Ravens linebacker’s outspoken support of same-sex marriage.
The availability of Twitter and other free and open social media platforms allow athletes to become activists with nothing but a few strokes on a smartphone or tablet. The years of Jackie Robinson’s quiet confidence and Muhammad Ali’s lively discourse are over, as modern day sports figures are taking their opinions to the web without the filter of mainstream journalists.
William Rand, assistant professor of marketing and computer science at the University of Maryland, has done extensive research on the evolution of social media.
“For some athletes that may not get interviewed as much on TV,” he said, “they get to express their opinions when they might normally have not been able to.”
Added Rand: “With the growth of smaller and shorter channels—like Twitter—athletes can speak out more frequently,” he said. “You can write a blog post and people can read it a day or two later. You can’t write one getting ready for a game…but you can write a tweet.”
As a punter, Kluwe doesn’t get interviewed as much as other players, so he doesn’t have as many opportunities to speak out. His extensive use of Twitter changes that.
“I’ve evolved a writing style that is uniquely mine. I like to draw attention to issues that people need to pay attention to,” he said.
Kluwe, known on Twitter as @ChrisWarcraft, has developed a reputation for being forthright online. Expressing opinions ranging from displeasure with NFL replacement referees to the economy, his colorful rhetoric in 140 characters or less has turned a few heads.
Loud as Kluwe’s opinions may be, being an outspoken athlete is nothing new to sports.
In an act of protest, Ali refused to enlist for the Vietnam War. This monumental choice did not come without consequence, as Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and had his boxing license suspended.
Modern day athletes, like Rashard Mendenhall of the Pittsburgh Steelers, have taken full advantage of the instant communication Twitter has to offer.
Following the death of Osama Bin Laden, Mendenhall took to Twitter to voice his displeasure with the celebrations taking place across America. But the running back’s provocative statements were unpopular with some fans.
In an attempt to prevent divisive issues from distracting from the games, officials from the London Olympics decided to enforce a policy intended to limit what athletes said over social media.
Rule 40, as it’s referred to, was designed to limit athletes from personal brand sponsorship.
Rand said this became an issue.
“Twitter is an area where I can endorse brands,” Rand said. “There are a lot of athletes that didn’t realize all those rules not only applied to what they did on the field, but they also applied to things they were saying off it as well.”
With the rising use of social media changing the way athletes communicate, some say the issues they champion have a chance of reaching their audience more effectively.
“Before social media, things just evolved very slowly,” said former Washington Post sports writer William Gildea. “I would bet that with this social media format, somebody can make a statement that influences others and progress can be made much faster than before.”
Gildea covered both local and national stories in Washington for more than 40 years, and said he has noticed a difference in the way athletes speak out.
“Athletes didn’t trust reporters sometimes,” he said. “Unless you were persuasive, many athletes didn’t say what was on their minds.”
Added Gildea: “I’d say I lost a few stories because of it.”
Today, athletes don’t have to speak with a reporter to get an opinion to the masses. A simple tweet or Facebook post can be crafted exactly the way it was meant to be said.
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice is one player who’s taken to the keyboard in support of equality and social change.
Rice, a strong advocate of ending bullying in America’s schools, has been active on Facebook in an effort to bring attention to the issue. The Pro Bowler’s page is full of planned events on the cause, as well as stories from across the nation that shed light on the subject.
Rice has more than 500,000 “likes” on his Facebook page, making his online voice heard by fans locally and beyond.
“We are 100 percent behind our players with their First Amendment rights,” said Chad Steele, media relations director for the Baltimore Ravens. “The only real thing we would be concerned about is if it affected the team.”
The Ravens may be behind their players and their rights to free speech, but other organizations around the nation aren’t as receptive to their players’ behavior online.
In October, Washington State football coach Mike Leach banned the use of Twitter for his team after some players’ controversial statements spurred unwanted attention to the program.
For outspoken players, Kluwe sees social media use growing.
“I see it getting bigger, once they realize what kind of platform it is,” he said.
“It is a tool that can be used to promote issues they want to promote. It’s up to the players.”
After learning of Burns’ letter, Kluwe knew he needed to speak out.
“Literally I could not fall asleep until I did,” he said.
An interactive graphic featuring Chris Kluwe’s tweet below. Warning: some readers may find the language in the graphic objectionable: