Social Media and Student Athletes: Is It An Oxymoron?

Today’s guest post comes from Mat Kanan, Director of Media Relations for Western Michigan’s athletic department. Mat earned his master’s in sports management from Western Michigan in 2009 and is a leader in the use of social media in college athletics. You can read his full bio below. Many thanks to Mat for his insight.

The other night as I was feeding my two month old daughter and battling to keep my two and a half year old daughter entertained, I started to think of all the changes they will experience in their lives. Just the evolution in technology alone is mind-boggling.

Mat Kanan

What will their world look like?  How will I, as a Dad, help them to navigate that very public world of social media, which will probably look nothing like it does today? How will I help them learn how to use this powerful media safely and responsibly?

Since I work with social media and student-athletes daily, my thoughts circled around to how these young men and women deal with that challenge. And I began to wonder –  is the term social media an oxymoron when it comes to the student-athlete?  Let’s break it down.  Social – the meaning of the word is pertaining to, devoted to, or characterized by friendly companionship or relations.  You put yourself in a social setting around those with whom you are most comfortable – your friends.  You are able to speak freely and, for the most part, without consequence because those you surround yourself with are trusted friends, teammates or family.

Now let’s look at media – the means of communication, as radio and television, newspapers, and magazines that reach or influence people widely.  We educate and train our student-athletes on how to speak to the media.  The media are seen as a group outside of their “inner circle.”  We educate to not be conversational with media, answer questions respectfully but directly; don’t use four words when two will do just fine.

So now these two words have been thrust together to represent an emerging platform for communication to not only your inner circle of trusted friends but to the masses.  I can see where the confusion begins for student-athletes.

They can be at home on break and tell their friends how great it is to attend their respective university but doing so, to the same person, on Twitter is newsworthy and also a violation of NCAA rules.

The two words represent two completely different worlds, or do they?  In a social setting with family, you wouldn’t go on a rant laced with foul language because it is disrespectful to those people.  In a social setting, you wouldn’t speak poorly of someone you think of as a friend for fear of it damaging your reputation, or it getting back to that person.

There is the key word – reputation.  Student-athletes are learning that their reputation carries into the online world and stays with them far longer than an overheard conversation at a party.  That’s where education starts.

I recently read an article from and the first quote in the article resonated with me.  It came from Blair Browning, co-author of a recent study that explored what student-athletes gain by using Twitter and the way they respond to harsh criticisms on Twitter.  He said, “Twitter is essentially a press conference that never ends.  In other words, the microphone is always in front of them and they don’t necessarily think of it that way.”

It is very true.  Posts on Twitter are direct quotes.  It is first source material for members of the media to pluck and use.  What is said on Twitter represents you, your brand, and your brand is synonymous with your online reputation.

Our newly hired football coach, P.J. Fleck, recently talked to our team about their brand and the brand of the program.  He referenced Kleenex.  He said that whenever you have a cold you say, “I need to get a Kleenex,” not a tissue paper, which Kleenex is a brand of tissue paper.  The brand has transcended the product itself.  That’s how important a brand is and the reason why you should do everything to present yours in the most positive manner.

Even though the words social and media have contradicting meanings in the minds of most people, including student-athletes, the term social media is one in the same and should be viewed as such.

Stanford head football coach David Shaw recently said at the American Football Coaches Association national convention in Nashville, Tenn., that Twitter should be used as a commercial for how great your life is.  That is very telling.

Student-athletes have many obstacles in their pursuit of success on and off the field of play.  The natural reaction is to voice opinions in the medium of the day.  Student-athletes need to know that their words carry further than their dorm room or locker room, and the world is watching.  Better yet, the world is following … 140 characters at a time.

Mat Kanan enters his eighth season with Western Michigan and his fifth year as the director of media relations in 2012-13.  Along with overseeing an office staff of three full-time employees and a group of student employees, Kanan produces weekly video features for the football, basketball and hockey coaches shows.  He works with the WMU marketing director on all social media efforts. After graduating from Ohio University from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism in 1997, Kanan, a native of Fremont, Ohio, worked for five years in corporate marketing before entering the sports information field as an intern at Capital University, a Division III institution in Columbus, Ohio. He and his wife, Donna have two daughters (Paige and Zoe) and reside in Kalamazoo. Find Mat here: @kananmj and
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