Chris Cooley and Brendan Haywood are two of Washington's more enlightened professional athletes.
They get this thing called social media.
Cooley, the tight end for the Redskins, and Haywood, the center for the Wizards, through their respective blogs, seem to have it about right: direct and personal communication with fans, control of their brand, opportunities for incremental revenue.
In the world of athletics - just a mirror of the real world - the exploding use of social media for networking is turning long-held media and other traditions on their heads.
If showman Chad Ochocinco is breaking NFL news to the 300,000 followers on his Twitter account, what's the point of a scoop from a Chris Mortensen, John Clayton or Adam Schefter. They are talking to sources (general manager types) about players. An Ochocinco or a Shaquille O'Neal is the source, pushing athletes closer to their inquisitive fan bases unlike anything that has come down the pike before.
How lost is traditional media on the phenomenon? A "sports humor" columnist for a Texas newspaper recently took Ochocinco to task for his tweeting, saying "not only does Ochocinco have a history of making up news, but he also is rather annoyingly adept at making news."
The columnist misses the point, confusing the worthy practice of journalism with simple first-person communication. The point is, the receiver of the communication can make up his or her own mind about the veracity of claims from Ochocinco or anyone else.
To the athlete's credit, no longer can traditional media run an athlete out of town as a malcontent or a flake -- the way they did Eddie Murray of the Orioles in Baltimore. Fans can take a look at the information source and judge for themselves without a filter. They can read the score themselves. Social media and the magnanimous way you apply it simply is leveling the playing field for athletes.
Some recent posts to Cooley's blog, "Chriscooley47 blog," brought fans along for the ride to Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center for surgery on his broken ankle that had knocked him out of the Philadelphia game Oct. 26. Cooley, whose blog reportedly is written by his brother, took the fans with him on the journey and included video and images from the hospital.
And the incremental revenue? Cooley markets "I Hate Dallas" T-shirts among other gear prominently on the blog. "All autographed items in Shot47 (his number) can now be personalized! If you purchase an item from our store that comes autographed and would like a message added to the autograph, send the request to (the Website)," the line reads.
Haywood, a gentle giant at 7-feet tall, ascribes to a sensitive side in his use of social media that probably is in keeping with his real personality. Based on the vernacular, you understand that the former AAU teammate of Elton Brand, Ron Artest, Rafer Alston and Lamar Odom more than likely writes his own blog posts on the athlete site at Yardbarker.com.
In recent posts, Haywood has tackled the return from injury of teammate Gilbert Arenas, the hub-bub over Rush Limbaugh seeking to buy a stake into an NFL team, the NBA's trashing of The Answer, Allen Iverson, and that day in September that President Obama delivered his supposedly controversial closed circuit back to school message to America's school children.
On Limbaugh, for instance, Haywood blogged, "I find it interesting that he wants to own a piece of the Rams seeing as how the NFL is a 70% African American league and in the past he hasn't spoken too kindly about African Americans on his show. Not only has he been outspoken about African Americans in general on the show but also the ones in the NFL." A bit wordy on the techniques of journalism, but you get the point: heartfelt.
And it was nice to hear Haywood sticking up for baller Iverson: "Here's the real situation - the Answer has always been a player to go against the establishment and when he finally slipped off his pedestal, everyone that had a problem with him decided to bombard him all at once. ... I'm hoping that the Answer returns to form and shuts up all of his critics so he can get the proper respect that a future Hall of Famer deserves!"
His fans are following and listening. The post on Obama drew more than 75 comments.
The bottom line for a Cooley or a Haywood is that social media is giving them the opportunity to extend their considerable brand and their celebrity. Heretofore, where else could you get specifics about the surgery for a Cooley or the social views from a Haywood. Certainly not typically from traditional media.
Athletes going forward will be challenged by the naysayers who will be happy to point out the dark side of their increasing use of social media. There always will be the case of a Larry Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs, who slammed his coach in a couple of tweets, or an Antonio Cromartie of San Diego Chargers, who proclaimed to the world that training camp food was the pits.
But in the realm of social media, that is OK too. The idea of this medium is to get it straight from the source. No one wants to wait for filtering through a middleman.
As advertisers and marketers continue to learn and understand the medium, the power of what anybody has to say will continue to resonate, and athletes are getting it.
Cooley Photo: Washington Post