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Despite unnecessary roughness, pro athletes belong on Twitter

As a Jay Cutler apologist, Jacksonville Jaguars’ running back Maurice Jones-Drew and the other NFL players who ridiculed the injured Chicago Bears’ quarterback via Twitter during the NFC Championship Game are dead to me. Yet as a sports fan and citizen, I’ll defend to the death (well, maybe not that far) their right to spout remarks out 140-characters at a time.

For more than a decade, the Internet and social media has promised (or threatened) to remove the layers that exist between fans and professional athletes. Five years ago, newspaper columns and call-in radio shows began to yield influence to blogs and podcasts. More recently, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks have empowered fans and players alike to share news and opinions with their friends and followers.

When LeBron James tweets that “Karma is a b*#tc” shortly after his former team loses by 57 points, he is revealing more about himself than he ever would through a beat writer or canned ESPN interview special. Contract extensions (for Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant), injury updates (for Bears safety Chris Harris) and victory guarantees (from Cincinnati Bengals outspoken wide receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson) are more efficiently reported by athletes via Twitter than through third parties anywhere else.

What was different and really unprecedented in the moments after Cutler left the field against the Packers was the flurry of unsolicited criticism he received from his peers. By the time Brian Urlacher appeared in a televised postgame press conference, the star linebacker was asked more about player reaction on Twitter than being tackled by the opposing quarterback during an interception return.

When word surfaced the next day that Cutler’s injury was legitimate and would have forced most players to leave the field, Jones-Drew and others tried retracting their words. Too late. More is revealed about players and what they really think from in-the-moment online commentary than through promotional announcements and softball interviews.

Even if the NFL and other leagues attempt to legislate against player-to-player contact on Twitter, the genie is already out of the bottle. Because of Twitter, the relationship between fans and players (as well as players and players) will never be the same.

While fans can unfollow players they no longer like or try to ignore Twitter altogether, social media - like every medium to reach critical mass before it - changes the game completely. Newspaper accounts of baseball games 100 years ago promoted the sport to the masses, eventually turning hobbyist sportsmen into paid professional athletes. The televised 1958 NFL championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts paved the way for football to eventually become the real America’s Game.

Twitter, especially applied to sports coverage and commentary, is still in a sort of technological adolescence. As more people become fluent in the language of social media, coverage, commentary and eventually competition will be impacted. By the time Cutler and company hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Indianapolis after winning Super Bowl XLVI a year from now, our whole world should look a bit different.

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