CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

Social-media savvy grows, even as coaches, schools try to keep up

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Barkley and Holmes share a knack for communicating, which serves USC well on the field. (US Presswire)  
Barkley and Holmes share a knack for communicating, which serves USC well on the field. (US Presswire)  

LOS ANGELES -- Like most athletes by now, Khaled Holmes and Matt Barkley have taken to Twitter. Heck, like many of us, they have been taken by Twitter. They're always checking their feeds whether they're walking around campus, eating lunch or tapping into it while hanging around the house and watching TV.

"You can't just watch TV anymore," Holmes says.

Holmes, though, isn't just active on social-networking -- he is actually getting a master's degree in it. The 22-year-old, who also happens to be Southern California's starting center and an all-American candidate, is pursuing his graduate degree in Social Media/Social Marketing as part of the USC's Annenberg Program on Online Communities (APOC).

Holmes (whose Twitter handle is @7kdiddy8) first discovered Twitter's pull when he was sitting in the team hotel the night before a game during his freshman year at USC. He was dying to know how the high school that both he and Barkley attended, Mater Dei, was doing in a game it was playing.

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"I'm Googling it. I'm going to OCVarsity [the Orange County Register's high school website], but it's not updating quick enough," he recalled. "I thought, 'Why don't I check Twitter?' So I search 'Mater Dei football' and Twitter is giving me play-by-play updates. That was a huge moment for me in terms of grasping the difference between Twitter and every other aspect of social media and the online experience, especially for sports and breaking news, nothing beats it."

Holmes cites another example that came up in a recent class discussion of the earthquake that rocked the Northeast last August: "They had tweets registering up the Eastern Seaboard before the seismic activity registered."

Holmes' buddy, Barkley, could probably teach a class on social networking after his experiences with it over the past 18 months. Barkley, a Communications major with one of the highest GPAs on the USC team, has created more buzz than any athlete in college sports for a few of his Tweets.

Barkley's Twitter bio reads: "I play quarterback, but that doesn't define me." He has over 50,000 followers. Among college football players, only LSU star Tyrann Mathieu has more. Barkley likes Twitter, he says, because it brings world news, political updates and sports news directly to him but also since it affords him the opportunity to communicate with his friends and fans on a more intimate level.

"It's my own words, my own thoughts that are coming directly from me," he says. "They [the media] can't twist your words, because that's exactly what you wrote. It can also be detrimental if you say the wrong thing, though. But if you want to make a statement and you want to get it out there, that's you and those are your words."

Barkley (@MattBarkley) admits there have been two or three tweets he regrets putting out there. About a year ago, he responded to a Yahoo news tweet that read: "Gov't says it won't defend constitutionality of law that bans recognition of same-sex marriage" by adding "SMH" (as in "shaking my head"). Barkley, a devout Christian who has taken multiple trips to Africa to do mission work, had a back-and-forth with someone who took issue with his tweet.

In retrospect, Barkley says Twitter is not the ideal place to discuss his thoughts on some topics.

"I realize that is one of the most controversial subjects, both on the Hill and in our society right now," he said. "I just don't think it's my place to be putting my words in to an audience that I have on Twitter. They don't want to hear that from me. Maybe if it's in a forum or a Town Hall setting, I'm open to talk about that given more context, where I can explain myself to somebody."

The 21-year-old QB also has, among other things, riled up some rival fan bases as well.

 The week before the 2010 Oregon-USC game, Barkley, noting that Cain Velasquez knocked out Brock Lesnar for the UCF heavyweight title, tweeted "Wow, Brock just got rocked! Lesnar is to Oregon as Velasquez is to SC. Lezgo." Barkley deleted the tweet but not before it had spread through the Twitterverse. He later explained he meant no disrespect to the Ducks and that he was just trying to fire up his teammates, who were, like Velasquez, an underdog in the matchup.

 During the 2012 BCS title game between LSU and Alabama, Barkley tweeted "Bored..." Then again, even some fans who hate the Trojans agreed with him as they watched the rematch of the two SEC heavyweights who played to a 9-6 overtime game in November. Still, many other fans tweeted back with their own barbs.

 Last month, Barkley broke news on Twitter, scooping the local media by reporting that USC was hiring former Tennessee star Tee Martin as the Trojans new wide receivers coach. Over the next 24 hours, Barkley estimated he gained 1,000 followers.

 On Valentine's Day, he included a picture of his girlfriend in a tweet that read: "Missing my Valentine right now... But distance makes the heart grow fonder! #HappyValentinesDay."

The tweet -- and picture -- ended up on the front page of Yahoo's site and elicited 991 comments, many of them unflattering or crude. The first post: "why is this news??? and why does she look like she lives 6 feet from the sun??"

"It was first her introduction to being public," Barkley says. "When the article went onto Yahoo, people started commentating on it. It was a picture that was taken last summer, and I put a filter on it that made it look a little darker. And I think Yahoo made it a little darker. We looked super tan. There must've been 1000 comments about how dark she looked, 'fake bake!' -- She started reading those and took it personally and got pretty upset. I've always told her how I handle criticism and how I laugh all that stuff off. I mean criticism from a coach is one thing and that's different, but when it's from people you don't know, I mean c'mon."

  

When Todd Graham stunned Pitt by bolting for Arizona State, Panthers players reacted by blasting him on Twitter. (US Presswire)  
When Todd Graham stunned Pitt by bolting for Arizona State, Panthers players reacted by blasting him on Twitter. (US Presswire)  
The level of celebrity for college athletes has never extended further than it does these days. The reason? Start with significantly more TV coverage and 24-hour, wall-to-wall media while the definition of "media" continues to morph into something much different in recent years, mirroring the often-contorted modern-day definition of celebrity. In football, kids become commodities and get famous before they sign with a college as worshipping fan bases and obsessed media hang on their every move. Add in a level of unprecedented accessibility to these players and it's a combustible mix.

One of the more intriguing situations in the new Twitter age occurred this winter at Pitt. Panther head coach Todd Graham stunned the college football world and especially the Panthers when he reportedly informed the team via text message that he was on his way to Arizona State to be introduced as the Sun Devils next head coach. Graham had only been at Pitt for one season before bolting, and his former players took to Twitter to let the world know how they felt about it. Among the tweets were the following:

"For someone who said they read the bible everyday, he must've missed the pg that said 'thou shall not lie'," tweeted defensive end Brandon Lindsey.

"He wanna preach so much he needs to read "Thou shall not lie," tweeted wide receiver Devin Street.

The players' reactions via Twitter provided a fascinating dynamic, especially since the school didn't try to ban them from commenting or minimize the response. College administrators often make heavy-handed attempts to diffuse charged situations. Pitt, which was also angered by Graham's actions, did not.

"There was a period of time for about three days where we wanted to allow our young men the opportunity, for a lack of better term, to vent," said E.J. Borghetti, Pitt's senior associate athletic director for media relations. "You had a lot of people who were hurt and disappointed, feeling shock, anger and maybe even some sadness. It was very emotional. We were not going to put a gag order on our kids. We didn't give them any ground rules or parameters. We only told them, 'Don't lower yourself because someone else did. We trust you to use your best judgment in representing our university.' Ultimately, moving forward, I don't know what you would gain [by putting them under a gag order].

"And we were largely pleased with how the guys handled themselves. I sincerely do believe if you treat people like adults, they'll respond."

Borghetti, 42, said it was eye-opening from an observational standpoint to read on Twitter about the players' mindset.

"It's amazing how you can get a truer sense of what they're thinking and feeling on Twitter than if they are sitting across the table from you. It's almost as if they're more liberated that way. It is a strange phenomenon."

  

Inside the USC Sports Information Office on a sunny Thursday afternoon, a few days before the Trojans begin spring football, Holmes and Barkley are talking about the world of Twitter. They have been friends since they met while playing basketball in sixth grade. Holmes has a unique perspective on his buddy's emerging star status, later saying that "it's cool" how much Barkley has connected with USC fans and interacted with people via Twitter, when the medium can be problematic and fraught with potential headaches, with obnoxious comments often lurking just a click away.

"I've been fortunate," Holmes says with a chuckle. "I haven't received too much hate. I'm just a lowly lineman. I don't think I have enough exposure to get hated."

Holmes' brother Alex, a former USC and Miami Dolphins tight end, recently launched his own social media company, Wild Hair Media, which started out as a way to help his brother-in-law, Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu, enhance his presence online. Polamalu, despite not tweeting often (962 times) has over 400,000 followers. He uses the medium mostly to alert fans of charitable causes or recommend movies. The Steelers star is very cautious on what he tweets, Holmes says. On Facebook, Polamalu has over two million "Likes," more than any other NFL player, the younger Holmes says.

Such a platform can be a powerful tool. That is one of things Holmes is studying in grad school. The strategic part.

"How do you make money on it? Or how do you turn these 'Likes' into dollars or affect social change and make them tangible?" says Holmes, who was recommended for the USC Annenberg APOC program by the department's director Prof. Karen North after the 6-4, 305-pound lineman had outscored all of her other students in her undergraduate classes.

"Khaled is remarkably good at social media and understanding the implications of it and seeing the strategic side of it," says North, who has a Ph.D. in psychology. "He is very analytical about human nature."

There is a real skill to developing a Twitter following, North says. She points to the example of Martha Stewart. The 70-year-old icon's persona wouldn't seem to mesh ideally with Twitter's demographic, but North says Stewart's been savvy in having a good balance of personal and professional tips to draw people in and keep them hooked.

Barkley in his own way does that too. Most players, college and pro, say very little of note on Twitter. It's relegated to a range of things from "rise&grinds" to inside jokes with their friends and even quoting song lyrics. There is a reason why Barkley isn't just followed by USC die-hards.

The quarterback is actually the only one in his family on Twitter. (He has younger twin siblings who are also USC students, but neither tweets.) His parents are "pretty adamant against Twitter," he says. "They just think it can more do harm than good. And that there is a narcissistic attitude you can get from it, about always thinking about yourself and that, 'Everyone wants to hear what I have to say' kind of deal."

Barkley's parents are right. There is an overwhelmingly narcissistic aspect to Twitter and that edge to it is sharpened by the followers counter on each profile. Twitter caters to our vanity and insecurity. Most of us live in a very subjective world. Twitter, though, in a warped way gives us a measuring stick.

"It's not the point to get more followers," Barkley says of Twitter. "It's to share content and to share ideas. I do think it can be addictive at times."

Holmes then teases his buddy about what he calls "the keyboard photo."

"I wanted to be real artsy," Barkley explains as he struggles to keep a straight face.

Holmes: "We were at dinner with some friends, and he just got on Instagram and had 2,000 followers in a couple of days. He Instagrammed a photo and everyone's like, 'That got 80 "Likes"?!?' I get like one and I'm stoked. And he's like, 'That's just how it is.' So the next day he took a photo of his keyboard. It's the dumbest thing."

Exactly 116 people "Liked" the keyboard photo.

Barkley: "It was a great photo. One half was in focus. The other half was blurred."

Holmes: "I knew immediately he just did that to see how many friggin' 'Likes' he could get. This guy."

Barkley: "It was a great picture."

  

Barkley says his parents have been more lenient about him tweeting because "they know I know how to handle myself and I learn from mistakes." They also understand he has strived to get the fans engaged.

"I think it's taught me lessons about how to handle criticism," Barkley says of Twitter. "And I also I think you can raise a lot of money and awareness for charities, like Troy does. It's just building your brand and having that name for yourself is a good, quick way into who you are."

With the rapidly increasing attention on social media, colleges are having to sort out to potential pitfalls, especially since their athletes are still under NCAA rule.

"I have to be really careful now about what products I say or what restaurants I talk about," Barkley says.

"All of us do," Holmes adds.

There are several fake Matt Barkley Twitter feeds. At one point, USC looked into getting verified accounts, but the players says they couldn't.

USC, like many college programs, has gone to some effort to educate their players about the impact -- and perils -- of Twitter. Around the country, many sports information staffers, compliance people and coaches send along tips and stories of players getting into trouble for tweets almost on a weekly basis. But the cringe-worthy mistakes keep coming. One college sports information director says he does not go one day without a football player tweeting something offensive. "Banning Twitter, though, isn't helping these kids mature," the SID said. "They can still be knuckleheads. You just hope you can teach them what is, and isn't acceptable to other people, not just in public."

NFL scouts discretely monitor players' tweets, trying to get a better read on their character and maturity.

"Sometime where it gets detrimental is you get into such a zone and there are thoughts that get in your head, and they should be kept in your head," Barkley says, "but they come out. And then, they're out there for the world."

Tim Tessalone has been the Trojans sports information director so long Will Ferrell once interned in his office back in his days at USC. He is a big believer in schools embracing new technology and adapting to the times.

"I just think it's not right to ban it," Tessalone says. "This is how people communicate now. Corporations tweet. Government leaders tweet. Do it smartly, and if you make a mistake, that's how you learn.

"Our basic rule of thumb is, 'If you wouldn't want your mom to see or hear it, don't do it."

Tessalone describes Barkley as a "techie" and says the senior QB has a good feel for social media. "He's grown to learn that with the position he has here that if he sneezes it's gonna be news."

Asked if he's uncomfortable with players sounding off online, where any smart phone has become a live microphone, Tessalone says this too is part of their education. "Why shouldn't a student-athlete express an opinion? This isn't East Germany in the '60s.

"You want their minds to grow and expand and explore. They're students, not robots. They don't all come from the same background. That's what great about college."


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
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