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February 8, 2012

HURT: Let Tweet freedom ring

Along with most of America, I have a Twitter account. I'm a big fan of Twitter. I have gotten more good things out of Twitter than I could list, especially in 140 characters or less. It's a social medium that's well-designed for the pace of life in 2012, particularly for people who know how to manage their timeline wisely.

Furthermore, as much as I like Twitter, that pales in comparison to how much I dislike censorship. People have a constitutional right to express themselves and should exercise it as they see fit. So, for both of those reasons, this is absolutely the last place that you will ever find a request for a "Twitter ban" for college athletes. I understand that student-athletes are, by definition, different from "normal" students. But within those parameters, every effort should be made to make their college experience as well-rounded and typical as possible, and using Twitter and other social media is an integral part of just about every student's daily life.

At the University of Alabama, the list of Tweeters includes most - not all, but most - of the football and basketball players. As you'd expect, most of those athletes have plenty of followers, although their accounts tend to be fairly mundane and occasionally indecipherable. From a vantage point on the far side of the generation gap, it is sometimes hard to keep up when comments are lyrics from rap or hip-hop or pop, or quotes from movies that I haven't seen. They can be misleading, but it's quite possible that, had Twitter been around in my college days, I might have tweeted "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli," without actually meaning that I was packing a firearm. Still, following UA athletes is both necessary and enlightening, particularly in these days of limited media access. It's a window - and a fairly unfiltered one - into an athlete's daily life, and one approaches writing about it all with some trepidation in case it results in the window slamming shut.

There was more of a gray area, though, with some of the Crimson Tide basketball players after the crucial win at Auburn on Tuesday night. The combination of a big win, a long bus ride and cellular communication led to a few tweets that raised some eyebrows, at least as far as gracious winning goes.
For instance, point guard Ben Eblen took at least one generic shot at Auburn: "Only thing comparably miserable to being in auburn is the 3 hour bus ride back." It's just the sort of thing any student at Alabama, or any average Crimson Tide fan might say. That sort of exchange is part of the rivalry. But is there a higher standard for someone who wears a uniform with "Alabama" on it? What about another Eblen tweet: "Way to protect home court." (I would have to go back and check if any Vanderbilt players tweeted the same when Alabama failed to "protect home court" a month ago.) And Eblen wasn't alone.

Freshman Retin Obasohan tweeted a sarcastic salute to the "35 auburn fans that stayed to the end of the game" and Trevor Releford noted that you couldn't get a picture of the AU crowd leaving because it was "too quick to capture it."

Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with fans doing taunting (within limits, of course) - and athletes bear the brunt of it in their time on the court. One has to suspect that Eblen, Releford and the rest of the Crimson Tide players heard far worse from AU fans than they subsequently tweeted. That's the nature of playing on the road, in Auburn or Tuscaloosa or anywhere else in the SEC. None of the tweets was profane, or threatening. By the standards of basketball smack-talk, they were downright bland, if superfluous. Because any response necessary was summed up in the 68-50 final score.

Twitter is great, and it's a great temptation for being snarky at times. I yield to that temptation from time to time, and can't point fingers. And I absolutely hope that mentioning the obvious - that players who post on social media are sharing their thoughts with the world - doesn't stop them from posting (or worse, bring down a ban). It's just something that student-athletes need to consider, along with their dozens of other responsibilties. And there is even a chance they'll see this - since I will link it on Twitter.

Occasionally, athletes do cross the line, even if you are generous about where the line should be drawn. There have been notable cases in college sports of athletes blasting their coaches or teammates for all the world to see. That hasn't been a problem at Alabama, unless I have missed a tweet or two.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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