The guys who run the National Football League (NFL) are learning the same lesson that the guys who run Iran had to learn earlier this year -- that maintaining an authoritarian grip on power is difficult in this age of social media.
"With Twitter's Arrival, NFL Loses Control of Image Game," is how the headline on Washington Post staff writer Rick Maese's fascinating piece put it this morning. (Perhaps more than any sports authority in the U.S., the NFL is determined to try and control its image in the media.)
So as dozens of NFL players have opened Twitter accounts to connect directly with their fans this pre-season, the league is working itself up into something of a tizzy trying to impose limits on what is essentialy an uncontrollable phenomenon.
Much like the Iranian clerics, the football czars are slowly losing the battle. As Maese documents, when players are told they cannot Tweet from inside a team building, they simply step outside to connect with their followers, which popular athletes easily gather by the tens of thousands.
One upcoming confrontation to keep an eye on is between Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, aka Chad Johnson, who already has over 80,000 followers, and who has Tweeted over 5,000 times, and the NFL. After Ochocinco said he might Tweet from the sidelines during the upcoming season, the League blustered that no player can use a mobile device during a football game.
"Damn NFL and these rules, I am going by my own set of rules," Ochocinco Tweeted back. "I ain't hurting nobody or getting in trouble, I am putting my foot down!!"
An indication of the scope of Twitter use among sports stars can be glimpsed over at the aggregator, AthleteTweets.com, which has gathered the Tweets of everyone from Dwayne Wade to Terrell Owens, not to mention Tony Hawk, Dara Torres, Jose Canseco, Kyle Petty, Serena Williams, and C.C. Sabathia, among many others.
Of course, there are still those in our media industry who are unaware that they now need to work with the audience to manage their brands via Twitter and Facebook. Perhaps the arrival of a football season where coverage of games will no longer be the exclusive property of the giant television networks will help the lights go on in their collective attic.
That's because the players and the fans will disintermediate the leagues, the networks, and the team managements to connect with one another directly in their own stream of consciousness, 140 characters at a time.