For better or worse: Evaluating the impact of social media on the NBA as LeBron James adds to China controversy
Social media has become a dominant trend across every sport over the last few years, with some leagues handling the pressure of a 24-hour news cycle better than others.
Many sports fans would agree that the NBA has handled the rise of this new medium the best, allowing fans to share highlights and players to interact as they’d like across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and everything in between.
However, just like everything, too much of a good thing can have an inverse effect, eventually turning it sour for those who have enjoyed it for so long.
In this case, social media has been around for such a long time that different trains of thought have evolved over the last few years. In that sense, fans have seen players use the medium for good, and they’ve seen players and team representatives ruin their brands with one tweet, as well.
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As the world awaits what’s next when it comes to the NBA as the Daryl Morey situation continues to evolve, it’s time to dive in on how social media has changed the game on and off the court.
The NFL and MLB get a lot of flack for their respective social media policies, whether it has to deal with their restrictions on sharing highlights or the rules that teams keep in place to make sure players aren’t revealing too much in the public eye.
The NBA, however, has fully embraced the new wave, and has increased its worldwide impact in the process. You want to share a highlight? Great, go for it. You want to tweet at a player to tell him he played well or poorly in a game one night? Sure, and there’s a chance they could even respond to thank you or debate you in a blink of an eye.
The best part of this rise, however? The evolution of something so beautiful that it has its own name: NBA Twitter.
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Like the New Republic wrote in 2016, “NBA Twitter is changing the way we watch sports.” Fans are showcasing their love of the sport in unique ways, whether it’s through in-depth, analytical tweets or comedic videos and memes spread across all platforms.
“If I knew what the secret sauce was, I’d bottle up it spread it around to every single league property that I work with,” TJ Adeshola, Twitter’s head of sports league partnerships, said in an article from the Washington Post. “NBA Twitter just has this really special connectivity to it that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
The best part, however, may be the interactions between the players themselves, which have created a miraculous mix of trash talk, pettiness and player-on-player drama that hasn’t been matched across other leagues.
Fans can read a Joel Embiid tweet one second where he roasts Kevin Durant during a beef with Hassan Whiteside, and instantly transition into a completely different player’s feed a second later.
You can watch LeBron James working out in the gym after the Cavaliers lost to the Warriors in the NBA Finals, and can then look at Draymond Green in a “Quickie” shirt, in honor of the Cavaliers’ Quicken Loans Arena.
Then, in a blink of an eye, you get LeBron channeling his inner Michael Scott, pulling off a “That’s what she said” joke to roast Draymond right back.
“I love it,” former Pacers legend and current TNT analyst Reggie Miller said in an article from the New York Post. “I love players that aren’t afraid to push the envelope, right or wrong. Again, we all stepped in some on Twitter and we’ve all said things we wished we could pull back. I’d still rather [have] honesty from athletes, as opposed to someone who is fake.”
Nothing is fake about the NBA on social media, and players aren’t afraid to show their real colors. Enes Kanter can pen an op-ed for The Boston Globe about his religious experiences, and players can open up in articles for The Players’ Tribune, or Instagram stories for their millions of followers.
“Players, more than ever, are aware of that,” ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt told me in the summer of 2018. “[Players] want to craft an image and are careful about it and want to continue to control the message, which is fair, you want to be in charge of your message and your content.”
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It’s something that’s been created more organically than in other leagues like the NFL, MLB or NHL, and it has bled into the WNBA and esports, as well. It’s a machine that keeps rolling, and doesn’t appear as if it’ll be stopped anytime soon.
On the flip side, as that machine keeps rolling, you’re bound to have a wheel fall off or an engine issue at some points. Look no further than the NBA’s recent controversy when it comes to the situation in China.
Focusing strictly on the use of social media throughout the process, we’ve seen both ends of the spectrum as players and team representatives weigh in. Fans saw the situation first take off when Rockets general manager Daryl Morey weighed in on the protests in Hong Kong, sparking weeks of a fiery environment across NBA Twitter.
Now, basketball fans have seen players restricted from answering questions in press conferences, media availabilities barred for the league’s games in China over the last week, and LeBron James facing backlash for publicly stating his opinions on the situation.
The whole controversy could be used as the perfect case study for the negative impact of social media on the league, with tweets and comments on every part of the spectrum wreaking havoc across the NBA’s social media sphere.
Morey’s tweet caused an uproar, Steve Kerr was criticized for staying in the middle and not commenting, and LeBron created even more chaos with his own comments during his media availability.
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“I just think that when you’re misinformed or you’re not educated about something — and I’m just talking about the tweet itself — you never know the ramifications that can happen,” LeBron said. “We all see what that did — not only for our league but for all of us in America, for people in China as well.”
“I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others,” LeBron then said after his initial thoughts landed on social media. “I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.”
Everyone faces consequences for everything, and that’s where the toxicity of Twitter is really showcased. No matter what you say on social media, there’s always going to be an opposite opinion, and it’s just a matter of how big that snowball gets as the situation evolves.
In the NBA’s case, their large social media presence is a “for better or worse” situation. It amplifies the positives, furthers the negatives, and makes it tough for any middle ground. However, like anything, there will always be a grey area.
For every good scenario, there will always be something to balance it out in its same context.
Sure, Kevin Durant catches flack for his “burner accounts” and some sensitivity at times, but he also utilizes social media in a way that not many stars can replicate. He interacts with fans and reporters both positively and negatively, and isn’t afraid to let it rip when he feels the situation calls for honesty.
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Yes, players staying up after games and creating drama on Twitter likely leads to better ratings and more of a conversation surrounding the teams involved. But, just like “How I Met Your Mother” showed television fans that nothing good ever happens after 2 a.m., there’s also research to show that players should stay off their accounts late at night if they want their stats to stay up.
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Everyone gets caught on either side of the coin at some point in their careers, like Reggie Miller said, and they wish they could take something back or would have waited to send it at a more appropriate time.
But, to many, the positives outweigh the negatives, and it’s on the players to utilize the medium properly to further grow the league and its platform.
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