Twitter, Athletes and the Zimmerman Verdict: Can Social Media Advance a Larger National Dialogue?

In times of emotionally charged national events, athletes have an opportunity to impact a larger conversation with their social media presence.

In times of emotionally charged national events, athletes have an opportunity to impact a larger conversation with their social media presence.

Uncomfortable. Polarizing. Controversial. Important.

The recent not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial produced a variety of adjectives – along with plenty of reaction on Twitter – from athletes and non-athletes alike. It unearthed the argument often repeated in times of national crises: Do we want to hear from athletes on such issues, or should they simply shut up and play?

As I’ve argued previously, there is no clarification button on Twitter when it comes to highly-charged reactions to current events. We all get one first chance at this, and if it takes more than 140 characters to make your point, perhaps Twitter isn’t the place. Maybe you wait awhile, collect your thoughts and share them in a blog (like I’m doing here, or like Russell Simmons did here).

And, I’m sorry, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t follow the trial from start to finish. Or if you know anything about the law. Or where you grew up. Or your skin color. What matters is where we go from here. Can we come together and collectively act in the wake of another national tragedy? Can any good rise from the ashes of burning anger, fear and hatred started long ago and only stoked by these recent events? Or will there simply be more talk (some of it really, really awful), followed by more apathy and inaction?

For better or worse, sports celebrities play a role in shaping this discussion – and the underlying and complex issues of race, gun violence, poverty …and more. We all do, actually. And Twitter is one of several vehicles we can use to advance the larger conversation. The difference for athletes is reach. On the whole, they have a louder microphone and can quickly nab the spotlight by simply hitting the TWEET button.

Dave Zirin of The Nation wrote this in a provocative piece about athlete reaction to the Zimmerman trial and verdict:

“Millions of people—in particular, millions of young white men—follow these guys on Twitter. Many exist in their own bubble where either Trayvon Martin doesn’t register at all, or if he does, it’s as someone who deserved to die. Maybe just maybe some of these comments by the people they cheer but rarely hear punctured their bubble.”

When the Zimmerman verdict came in, some athletes quickly took to Twitter. The reaction was – predictably – all over the board. Some – like Jared Sullinger of the NBA’s Boston Celtics – shared raw emotions in the moments after the verdict was read.

Jared Sullinger's tweet in reaction to the Zimmerman verdict.

Jared Sullinger’s tweet in reaction to the Zimmerman verdict.

Others incited further hatred and divide. Tweets were deleted and apologies posted. It was all too predictable. And disappointing. Many athletes passed on the opportunity to comment, swerving past the controversy like it was a wayward orange road construction barrel, yet missing a chance to impact a larger national issue.

As Steve Hummer wrote this week, Twitter continues to be a “two-edged sword” for athletes.

“At its best, Twitter personalizes the sports figure, which should in turn translate to increased marketability. The rawest, more reflexive reactions make for the noisiest tweets. It is a fine line the author treads, between being interesting and being offensive.”

The issues surrounding the George Zimmerman trial don’t require athletes to be offensive. Using Twitter for good – to further a collective conversation about issues affecting us all – is not controversial or polarizing. It might be uncomfortable. It’s most definitely important.

“We aren’t talking together — all Americans, black, white and all colors in between,” Jackie Warren-Moore wrote this week. “We are talking about each other. We aren’t talking about what divides us still. God knows, we aren’t even considering what might unite us.”

Athletes don’t have to risk reputations by asking questions and encouraging further dialogue. Showing emotion through Twitter – without making it hateful, incendiary or divisive – is OK. It’s human. It’s interesting. Heck, it can even be brand-building. And just maybe, it can make a positive impact.

Thanks for being a fan.