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Can NBA players really win the lockout war on Twitter?

Doug Gross, CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • As NBA lockout threatens season, players take to Twitter to make their case
  • Lakers guard Derek Fisher urges colleagues to use social media
  • Players can use their personal popularity to spread opinion in a way ownership can't
  • As players tweet, ownership has remained mostly quiet on social-media platforms

(CNN) -- When word came down Monday that an ownership lockout would cancel at least the first two weeks of this year's NBA season, players' association president and Los Angeles Lakers point guard Derek Fisher had a three-word response.

"LET US PLAY."

But they didn't come in a press release or a statement in front of a bank of news cameras. Instead, they were on Twitter, the social-media platform where the league's stars have millions of followers and where they hope their high profiles will win public sympathy during an increasingly bitter labor fight.

It's not the first time pro athletes have used the site's micro-blasts of info to make their case in such disputes. In fact, "let us play" was a refrain used by the NFL players' association on Twitter during last summer's labor negotiations, which were settled without any regular-season play being missed.

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But it may be the first time it's been an integral part of a plan to sway public opinion.

"This is an orchestrated effort by the players attempting to gather attention and support for their cause, much in the same way carrying a picket sign might have in another era," said Eric Rabe, senior adviser at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government, where he studies the use of social media.

Fisher added the hashtag "#standunited" to his post, a tag other players have adopted, allowing Twitter users to follow all of their tweets in one place.

In a letter to fellow players after it was clear that negotiations had broken down between players and owners, Fisher said he and New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul would be "utilizing our personal social networking channels to show the fans and you all that we are united and want to get back to work under a fair deal."

"We invite you each to do the same," he wrote in the letter, which was obtained by Sports Illustrated. "To show our unity and to remind the fans that this is not our choice and we would like to go back to work and play the game they love to support."

Some of the game's biggest stars took the cue.

"I wanna sincerely say sorry to all the fans! It's a sad day for all of us, especially u guys!" Miami Heat superstar LeBron James wrote on his Twitter feed. "There's no US w/o You."

And that, observers say, is where the players have the advantage. James has 2.5 million followers on Twitter. His teammate Dwyane Wade has 1.7 million. Almost all of the league's top players who are active on the site are followed by hundreds of thousands of fans. (Twitter, not Facebook, has been the go-to platform for NBA stars' messages about the labor dispute.)

"It's logical for the players to take this approach," said Rabe, who as head of Verizon's corporate communications was responsible for spearheading that company's social-media efforts, as well as representing it through several labor disputes. "They've got a resource there to exploit and an issue they want to get on the table in front of the fans. I'm sure they'll have some success with it."

In most labor situations, management is less apt to appeal directly to the public for a variety of reasons, Rabe said. "I'm not sure that's necessarily wise, but that's a tendency that management has in these situations."

That's certainly been the case in the NBA talks, during which owners have remained much lower profile..

Dallas Mavericks boss Mark Cuban is the league's most high-profile owner and one of its most active on Twitter, with more than 700,000 followers.

But despite tweeting regularly, the often-outspoken Cuban does not appear to have mentioned the lockout in recent days. One of his other projects, cable channel HDNet, has gotten more mentions than the NBA of late.

Other high-profile owners were equally mum about the lockout. Portland Trail Blazers owner (and Microsoft co-founder) Paul Allen has 23,000 followers but has focused recently on tech-industry startups and one of his other properties, the NFL's Seattle Seahawks.

Sacramento Kings co-owner Joe Maloof hasn't posted on Twitter since September 19, and his brother and partner, Gavin, has been tweet-free since May.

With nearly 3 million followers, the NBA's Twitter feed is more popular than that of any of its active players. But as of Tuesday afternoon, it had featured only a single matter-of-fact tweet acknowledging the lockout.

"As a general matter, I've usually advised the management to be active in communicating while in a labor negotiation," Rabe said. "I do not believe you have an advantage when abandoning the public discussion to the other side."

Discussing complex labor talks on a fast-moving and unfiltered platform like Twitter has its risks, however. The Twitter account for Kenyon Martin, who played for the Denver Nuggets last season, appeared to have been deleted Tuesday after he seemingly wrote an offensive post Sunday during a back-and-forth with followers.

"All Haters Should catch full blown Aids and Die! Do the world a Favor! and rid us of ya all!" read a post on his feed. It was later deleted. In a subsequent tweet, Martin denied writing it.

Whether social media ultimately plays a role in how the labor dispute is resolved remains to be seen. But, for either side, it's very likely worth a try, according to Rabe.

"Certainly, in labor negotiations, both sides are looking at the public support they're getting as an indicator of how long they can hold their hardline position," he said. "Right now, it looks like they're both holding hardline positions, but something's going to have to give sooner or later."

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