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Players learning that social media needs to be used responsibly

The fallout over Rashard Mendenhall's controversial Twitter post after the death of Osama bin Laden intensifies the spotlight on the subject of how pro athletes use social media.

It's easy to say that athletes fall into the same category as entertainers, treating this extremely powerful and influential means of communication as a way of helping to elevate their profile and fortify their brand.

But team sports, such as football, make that approach a little trickier because whatever an athlete (or any member of the organization) says publicly reflects on the team. Sometimes, wielding all of that power and influence without a filter can impact a player far differently than he intended. And the next thing he knows, he has tweeted his way right out the door.

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I'll be the first to admit that I'm not only a fan and user of Twitter, but that I also embrace the idea of players using it to the hilt. Through the years, pro athletes' accessibility to media and fans has become more limited and carefully managed. Social media has, to a great degree, reopened those doors by creating more opportunities for interaction in a less-guarded environment. It empowers players to control their message and say what they want to say without worrying about how it might be translated when given to reporters to give to fans.

In many cases, they break their own news, such as Reggie Bush tweeting his farewell to New Orleans during the draft after the Saints used a first-round pick on his presumed replacement at running back, Mark Ingram. Bills defensive backs Donte Whitner and Drayton Florence did the same after their team made selections expected to fill their spots.

Still, all of this cyber dialogue comes with responsibility. Like it or not, whether official or implied, there's a code of conduct that all of us who work for someone and take to the world of social media must follow. We're obligated to constantly keep in mind how the people who sign our checks, now or in the future, might react to what we post.

Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II thought Mendenhall's tweet in the hours after bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces questioning "what really happened" on 9/11 and expressing doubt that "a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style" reflected poorly on his club. He felt strongly enough about it to release a statement on the Steelers' official website expressing that it is "hard to explain or even comprehend what he meant with his recent Twitter comments" and added that the "entire Steelers organization is very proud of the job our military personnel have done and we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon."

For his part, Mendenhall removed his comments from Twitter and on Wednesday posted a blog that included an apology to anyone who was offended by what he tweeted and a clarification of his original posting.

Rooney also made a point of mentioning that he had not spoken with the running back. That's in keeping with lockout rules that prohibit NFL team officials from talking with players, but you can bet such a conversation has a prominent spot on Rooney's post-lockout to-do list.

This might be dismissed as a case of "learning the hard way" about the pitfalls of social media. However, it should be noted Mendenhall has been down this rocky road before. On March 17, he tweeted that he agreed with Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson describing the NFL's labor situation as "modern-day slavery." That couldn't have played well within a franchise whose ownership includes Dan Rooney -- after whom the Rooney Rule, designed to promote diversity among coaching and front-office hires, is named.

Dallas Cowboys running back Tashard Choice also found himself backpedaling from a bin Laden-related tweet. After posting a complaint Sunday night that CNBC had preempted "To Catch a Predator," he came back with a quick apology once he realized it was due to coverage of the bin Laden story. However, when the Dallas Morning News, among other media outlets, reported Choice's tweets, he tweeted his outrage that his first posting made news.

That's a perfect example of the ignorance that can sometimes be found among those who dabble in social media. The interpretation of whether what is tweeted is newsworthy is strictly in the eye of the beholder, a right surrendered the moment you press the send button. And monitoring athletes' social media accounts (there is an app for that) has become a natural part of the reporting process because it not only allows you to find out what's on their mind, but also to know what they're doing and where and when they're doing it.

NFL teams might not love that players can reach thousands and even millions of people without their involvement, but there is nothing they can do to stop it and there is no reason to think they'll try. Besides, seemingly everyone in the league is on Twitter: coaches (including Seattle's Pete Carroll and Detroit's Jim Schwartz), owners (including the Cowboys' Jerry Jones and the Colts' Jim Irsay), the commissioner, and public relations staffers.

This bird has long left the cage, and it's never going back.

Oh, and by the way...

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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