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Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

A match meant to be? Social media and sports

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Photo by The Malones. Click on image for license and information.

In 2010 one of the questions sports organizations were wrestling with was whether they should allow their players to tweet. That question is far from defined, but it's becoming clear that social media has an important role to play within the sport community.

Recently, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick responded to critics on twitter by first favoriting some of the harsher commentary and then sharing a pointed response on Instagram. Anyone with a larger social presence will tell you that you should probably ignore the critics online. The veneer of anonymity can encourage the harshest possible vitriol aimed at any public or personal vulnerability that can be found. Kaepernick's actions have consequently attracted attention, with many asking what his intention is by flagging so many of the negative comments.

Fandom is a serious commitment. It's an identity that places the individual within a recognizable geographic and social community. People align themselves with teams that they feel represent them in some way. It could be geographic, it could be a family following, it could be the team colors. For whatever reason, people choose a team, and consequently the players, to represent them. Consider the immense amount of pride a city displays at winning a championship: parades are planned, children miss school and workers call out sick to participate in the celebration, the players are lauded—figuratively carried on the shoulders of the people to City Hall. Why? Because they have represented their fans in the greatest possible way. Fans show up at games and watch them on television because their support validates that representation. Social media provides a pipeline to the players for the fans. They can voice their concerns, they can make suggestions, they can questions decisions—after all, it is their reputation on the line as well if the team is sub par. And they expect a response.

Kaepernick is a part of a generation of players coming up through the ranks who have always had Facebook and Twitter. They're used to using social media to connect with others, and for them this form of contact with fans is natural. Kaepernick's "intentions" are exactly in line with the expectations of fans in the digital era. Social media provides athletes with the opportunity to manage their own professional identity. They no longer need to work through reporters to answer their fans. They're in control of the message they want to share via social media. So if they want to discuss a botched play or a good one, they don't need to be filtered. They can claim accountability; and since sports is such an emotionally charged experience, taking responsibility—or standing up to negative commentary—can go a long way toward maintaining a fan base. If something isn't right, it's no longer easy to avoid the issue. If you aren't who you claim to be, it will be readily apparent in the fan response.

Kaepernick's response represents a clear shift in the fan-player relationship, which has been unfolding over the last few years. His use of social media reduces the distance between the athlete as performer and the athlete as representative. It brings fans closer to the construction of the team and folds the organization more closely into the supporting community. Ultimately, this may shift the focus away from the team and more toward the player as a champion, but it may also satisfy the needs of both players and fans

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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