Peter Schaffer Out In Front On Social Media Awareness
The influence of social media during the NFL draft reached an all-time high this time last year. Laremy Tunsil landed in the center of controversy after his Twitter account was hacked moments before the draft and someone posted a video of Tunsil smoking a substance from a bong while wearing a gas mask.
It dominated the first night of draft conversation and contributed to Tunsil's fall from a projected top-five pick to the Miami Dolphins at No. 13 overall.
Whether hacked or not, players are responsible for their social media accounts, and the fallout is enough that NFL teams have made it part of their evaluation process.
"So now it's evolved, to my understanding, where every team has at least one or two people monitoring all social media now for all rookies," said Denver-based sports agent Peter Schaffer, who represents clients such as Cleveland Brownsleft tackle Joe Thomas and Denver Broncos tailback C.J. Anderson. "The Instagram, the Snapchat and Facebook, all the stuff, it's now all final policy."
Schaffer realized six years ago that social media was a blind spot with NFL scouting.
Schaffer had an intern, Aaron Fleiss, who wanted to get into football scouting. So Schaffer asked Fleiss to create a Facebook character analysis of the top-64 players in the 2011 NFL draft. This was before Snapchat. Instagram was a year into its existence and Twitter was gaining traction.
Fleiss thoroughly studied each available Facebook page for prospects projected to go in the first two rounds and had some interesting discoveries, including a first-round pick who took a picture in front of what appeared to be a pile of cocaine. The report included personal comments, number of Facebook friends and photos of the potential draftees. It was sent to all 32 teams and caught the attention of the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns, who both hired Fleiss for future internships in back-to-back years.
The report was just the beginning of what teams learned they could do to evaluate players using social media. ESPN recently communicated with four NFL teams to examine how they study social media leading up to the NFL draft. The processes varied, but all four confirmed social media is part of the scouting process.
The first team, which won multiple Super Bowls, uses software-driven technology that can pull up anything a prospect ever posted on social media, regardless of whether messages and/or images were deleted. This was the most comprehensive and in-depth method of the four teams.
The second team, which resides in the AFC, assigns area scouts to begin studying draft-worthy prospects' social media during their junior year of college. Once that player leaves at the end of their junior or senior season, that team feels it has a good handle on prospects' social media accounts.
The third team, which made the playoffs last season, assigns roles to lower-level members of the front office to research players' social media accounts. If something alarming is found, those staffers alert high-ranking officials in the front office during the pre-draft process and before a decision is made.
The fourth team, which missed the playoffs last season, told ESPN, social media is now packaged as part of its background check for prospects.
Each team proves that, at this stage, there is no uniform method of handling this challenge in scouting.
"You have social media now, so we have to add that to the process," Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said earlier this month during their pre-draft media conference. "We didn't have social media in 1996 as much as we have it today."
As a result, the already ultra-competitive job of sports agents has become even trickier.
College prospects cannot be withheld from social media due to basic rights of free speech and expression. Agents who believe the risks outweigh the rewards for professional athletes -- and there are some -- can only "advise" clients to stay away from social media while ultimately leaving the choice up to the player. Some listen, some don't.
But just as players have the freedom to use social media, NFL teams also have the right to closely monitor it and discipline accordingly. Multiple agents told ESPN that they believe all 32 teams examine social media of its players in some capacity.
"I'm not a big fan of social media with respect to clients," said one NFL agent, who did not want to be identified. "Too many potential pitfalls and players who don't think before they post. It's good for marketing and PR [public relations] opportunities as well as players who want to directly communicate with fans, although that has the potential to go in a bad direction as well, of course. In short, unless for a marketing or PR purpose, I prefer players to basically steer clear or have a private profile."
The NFL replaced the Rookie Symposium in 2016 with the Rookie Transition Program. Now, each team hosts its own program at team facilities in June as opposed to a centralized gathering involving all drafted rookies. There are several mandatory topics each NFL team annually must address, such as mental health, respect at work and player engagement resources. Social media is not one of those mandatory topics. However, many teams address it anyway along with how to handle the news media. Even with social media education and reminders, NFL players still make mistakes.
The most high-profile incident last season involved Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown, who posted a Facebook Live video during head coach Mike Tomlin's postgame locker room speech following a playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
In the video, Tomlin called the New England Patriots an expletive term in what was supposed to be a private moment with the team. Brown was fined $10,000 by the Steelers. But the punishment could have been worse, especially if it didn't involve a star player the week before the AFC Championship Game.
Are NFL teams better equipped to handle a Tunsil-like draft incident in 2017? Multiple league insiders told ESPN the process of tracking social media will only improve.
Tunsil was an interesting case that involved the worst possible timing and circumstances with social media. As Tunsil's stock dropped, it ultimately impacted how much money he made on his first contract. Tunsil agreed to a four-year, $12.45 million contract with the Dolphins last year when he should have gone higher.
Longtime draft expert Mel Kiper Jr., who was part of ESPN's broadcast team during the Tunsil incident, believes incoming rookies will learn from Tunsil's experience.
"Obviously, you have to be aware that it can hurt your draft position, as it did with Tunsil. But that's a rarity though," Kiper said. "That's not something I think you can expect to happen every year. I think these kids, the ones I've spoken to, are ready to go. There's not going to be any issues, and I've spoken to every kid that's going to be a first-rounder. The ones that we have spoken to, it's a mature group."
There are perks to social media, which explains why there were approximately 2.3 billion registered users in 2016 on Facebook (1.59 billion), Instagram (400 million) and Twitter (320 million) combined, according to Adweek. Athletes are popular and people care about their day-to-day lives more than the average person. Social media is a way to communicate directly to those fans, without filter, in addition to gain additional followers.
Large followings also can lead to endorsements and additional income through social media. Social media is a fast and efficient source for news and entertainment, and community events by athletes can be easily advertised to large audiences.
"I have players that want to do certain things in their communities so it helps get that message out," Schaffer said. "In order to get the message out, you have to have followers. In order to get followers, obviously you have to put up things that are interesting so people do want to care about it. They can't be bland. ... Put out stuff that's not only interesting but socially acceptable and ways to show you care about people, not just you."
Now that social media is prominent in our society and has infiltrated the NFL scouting process, it's up to each incoming rookie to tread wisely and weigh the pros and cons.
"Everything you put up there, that's going to be read by everyone," Kiper said. "You have to be careful of all of that and be aware of it. It can be a positive, or it can be a major negative."