It is 2014, and our relationships with athletes are different than they were twenty, ten or even five years ago. Or so we continually hear. The dominant narrative is that we are closer to them because of a variety of reasons. Back in the day reporters would sometimes hold back stories about players, but today’s journalism outfits chase pageviews and compete with TMZ and thus will post anything. High definition TVs allow more people to watch games and see athletes up close in a way they could only do from the court side seats before. Through twitter, athletes are connecting directly with fans instead of doing through an intermediary.
All probably true, but I think this analysis misses something. We may know more facts about the athletes and better recognize their faces, but I don’t know that we “know” them that much better. Their actions are still filtered through TV cameras, their words through public relations executives. You can point to twitter, but it’s still mostly mundane comments from people who know their words are being seen by hundreds of thousands, who know they will be pounced upon if they say something even remotely stupid.
Six months back, the San Antonio Spurs’ Danny Green participated in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on reddit. AMAs are some of the most popular posts on reddit, a way to ask famous and non-famous people alike questions directly. AMAs are another one of those things helping inch fans closer to athletes. Or, they are in theory, as Danny Green gave an AMA more bland than a Gregg Popovich sideline interview.
Q: How great did it feel to absolutely POSTERIZE Greg Paulus in the game that determined the 2008 ACC regular season champion?
Danny Green: I didn’t like him and Duke
Q: Thanks for doing this Danny…..Who’s hardest player in the league to defend?
DG: In my opinion, Kevin Durant…he’s 6’11 and moves like a guard, you can’t block his shot
Q: What’s it like playing for Pop?
DG: It’s great. It’s an honor to play for him. He’s a great coach. He makes it very easy. He’s laid back, funny at times … and he makes my job very easy.
I swear I didn’t cherry pick here: these might actually be the most interesting things learned in Danny Green’s AMA. That a North Carolina player doesn’t like a Duke player. That Kevin Durant is difficult to defend. That he likes the best coach in basketball. Novel information that really helps me better understand him, you know?
But then, along comes Terrence Ross’ AMA!
Q: Is this a hole in your wall? If so could you tell us the story behind it?
Terrence Ross: haha! yes! it was qunicy acy fault. i beat him in a game of 2k and he kicked a hole in my wall.
Q: i thought [Tyler Hansborough] hated being called psycho t?
TR: maybe, but i still call him that! his other nickname is chops. he calls himself chops, but we don’t. he’s crazy, so we still call him psycho t.
Q: T-Ross! What has happened this season that has led to your improvement?
TR: probably the off season last year and i think the rudy gay trade.
Q: What is your favourite thing about Toronto? (Please don’t say our mayor)
TR: rob ford follows me on twitter! Haha. my favourite thing about toronto is the fans.
There is the promise of closer fan-player interaction. Terrence Ross posted a picture and somebody noticed there was a hole in the wall behind him and asked why, and Ross revealed that teammate Quincy Acy gets mad when he loses video games. We found out that Tyler Hansbrough is indeed the kind of psychopath that thinks he can give himself a nickname. We find out Terrence Ross probably wasn’t happy with Rudy Gay’s play and is willing to subtly call him out. That’s the stuff that makes me feel like I know somebody better, even if it’s only a little bit.
Much of the time athletes’ social media presence is controlled by a marketing company, where an eight-dollar-an-hour intern posts updates to their Facebook page. Perhaps they “take over” a twitter account or participate in some event, but they’re transparently there to push Nike or NBA Cares or Beats by Dre. It is an attempt to create an artificial closeness, a fake intimacy designed to better sell things without the potential pitfalls of actual intimacy.
Before his AMA, Terrence Ross piqued my interest about as much as any other average NBA player. Depending upon the day, I may have remembered that he once dropped a 51 point game. I’d be pretty sure he was drafted in 2012, but wouldn’t be surprised if it was actually 2011. He came across my radar as much as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeremy Lamb, Corey Brewer or Danny Green did. I know what teams they play on, I can generally tell you their positions and what type of game they have. I might know where they went to college or a lone fact.
But Terrence Ross! This is the promise of social media, the gains to be made by connecting with fans. He’s not just a robot with freakish athleticism anymore (well, he’s still that, have you seen him dunk?) but a human being that I relate to. He’s a person that I can now somewhat identify with.
Understandably, it is very scary to let your guard down with fans. As a body fans are a horrible, mean-spirited, vindictive and hard-to-please group of people. Say one thing they don’t like and it will stick with you forever. They look up to you and place expectations upon you even if you’ve never asked them to, even if (a la Sir Charles) you’ve explicitly asked them not to.
But with risk comes reward. A year ago I cared as much about Danny Green as I did Terrence Ross. Today I care much more about Terrence Ross. That’s the power of authentically connecting with fans.