June 25, 2012 at 2:28 PM ET
All winter long, New York Knicks star player Amar’e Stoudemire plays in front of packed basketball arenas. Often, when on the road, he must stand on the foul line and hit critical shots while ignoring taunts screamed at him by 20,000 or more enemy fans.
So why couldn't he ignore one comparatively tame tweet from a Knicks fan critical of his play?
Stoudemire is the latest professional athlete to land in social media hot water after he replied privately on Twitter this weekend to the fan. In just 140 characters, he managed to squeeze in two words we won't publish on msnbc.com, including one hateful gay slur: "F#&# you. I don't have to do anything, F#@."
The recipient took a screen capture of the private direct message and posted it publicly. Within hours, a typical Internet firestorm ensued. The NBA now says it is investigating.The fan, who identifies himself as 19 years old on his Twitter account, loves the Knicks so much he uses the team logo as his background image. But he's not innocent. He taunted Stoudemire, who he says is one of his favorite players, by urging him to "come back a lot stronger and quicker to make up for this past season" -- nothing wrong there -- but closed the note like this: "mannnnnn deadasss!!!"
While no one wants to be in the business of ranking foul language, clearly Stoudemire upped the ante with his response. Literally and figuratively, Stoudemire should have been the bigger man.
The fan has declined interviews, saying, "I don't want to make this situation any bigger than it is," a mature response that Stoudemire could easily have employed this weekend.
It's time professional athletes realized that social media is a lot bigger than they think it is.
Stoudemire's Twitter transgression is hardly the first, and it won't be the last. It is, however, shocking that an athlete being paid more than $20 million annually could be thrown off his game so easily. And it's almost unbelievable that professional sports teams that spend hundreds of millions of dollars crafting their image leave so much to chance on Twitter and Facebook.
It's not as if the sports leagues can't control social media usage -- the National Basketball Association prohibits players from Tweeting 45 minutes before games, during games, and after games until media leave the locker room. Other leagues have similar restrictions.
Still, Twitter regret is a fixture in the sports world. Then Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was fined last season for complaining about umpires on Twitter. Several NFL players were criticized for saying they were enjoying the NFL lockout last summer. And NBA pariah Gilbert Arenas was fined after he tweeted that he would be "direct sexting in no time" last year.
Stoudemire's direct response to a fan raised the stakes however. His casual use of a gay slur also shows just how far the NBA has to go to make its environment accepting of all sexual orientations. The NBA might look to the NHL for inspiration; last year, the hockey league joined the impressive "You Can Play" initiative after a team general manager's son became one of the first openly gay members of a prominent hockey team while serving as student manager of the Miami University NCAA team. The student, Brendan Burke, died in a car crash in 2010.
In addition to the offensive language, it's amazing that some athletes fail to prepare for the reputation risk which comes from social media, and that professional leagues haven't managed to control it. The contrast with college sports here is stark; across the country, many colleges are trying to ban athletes from using social media, or hiring technology companies to monitor them closely.
This approach has raised serious First Amendment issues, but it at least shows the schools are taking the risks seriously.
There is a distinct difference, however, when a professional sports team pays an athlete millions of dollars as part of a profit-making venture. Schools shouldn’t force teenage lacrosse players off Facebook, and they probably don’t have the right to such a free speech restriction, but a pro team can surely control how its highly compensated employee interacts with the public.
The Twitter regret issue should be interesting to watch during the upcoming London Olympic games, where a combination of highly paid professionals and amateurs, along with very excited family members, might lead to some embarrassing social media moments. Already, famous British swimmer and former silver medalist Sharron Davies is calling for a Twitter blackout by U.K. athletes during the games.
“It’s always something that is a bit of a risk, that some silly story would overshadow the good stuff we were doing,” Davies told the Mirror. “For that short period, a month, let’s not take a risk.”
For his part, Stoudemire did apologize, seemingly without prompting, several hours later.
"I apologize for what I said earlier. I just got off the plane and had time to think about it. Sorry bro!! No Excuses. Won't happen again," he wrote in another private message posted by the recipient.
Stoudemire had a frustrating, injury-riddled season that ended with him embarrassingly punching a glass door after a playoff loss to eventual league champion Miami Heat. Angry punches and glass don't mix well. The resulting injury caused Stoudemire to miss a playoff game and limited him for the rest of the series.
Frustration and the instant gratification of social media are an even more toxic mixture. If someone paid me $20 million a year, I'd pay for 24/7 public relations help with my Twitter account. Seems a sensible way to keep the fouls on the court.
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An earlier version of this story said Brendan Burke played minor league hockey. Msnbc.com regrets the error.