Richard Sherman, Domonique Foxworth, Larry Fitzgerald, and Arian Foster at Harvard's iLab
Richard Sherman, Domonique Foxworth, Larry Fitzgerald, and Arian Foster at Harvard's iLab

On Wednesday afternoon, the Harvard Innovation Lab — usually home to talks by movers and shakers in the business and entrepreneurship worlds — hosted four world-class athletes for a discussion about the business of sports and how athletes navigate the worlds of social media.

The panel, “Social Capital of the Savvy Athlete,” featured Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks firebrand Richard Sherman, Arizona Cardinal All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald, Houston Texans star Arian Foster, and former Denver Bronco and current HBS student Domonique Foxworth. It was moderated by Anita Elberse, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

The discussion, focused on what sports stars do off the field, was very candid and veered off the main topic and into issues such as race in sports (which was actually going to be a panel featuring the same players on Harvard’s campus that afternoon), the importance of education, and entrepreneurship.

Walking the Twitter tightrope

One thing that was made clear by the panelists: Operating on Twitter isn’t easy for anyone.

Part of the problem is that many athletes have “brands” that are built up around them that they both need to protect and, too often, feel the need to personify at all times. As Arian Foster said, “At first I was very cognizant of who I wanted to be online, but after awhile, I kind of stopped caring about public perception. With athletes and celebrities, I don’t get a real sense of who anyone really is.”

Foster said that the @ArianFoster is as as close to the real Arian Foster as possible, for good and for bad. “Anyone who opens up a Twitter account can view my thoughts,” he said.

“Everyone should be who they [on Twitter]. People respect you much more for being who you are than for putting on a facade,” Foster added.

Richard Sherman, who received a ton of criticism on social media after his last play celebrations and subsequent interview with Erin Andrews at last year’s NFC Championship, echoed Foster’s thoughts. He said being yourself can sometimes cause negative reactions from people online who expect athletes to all act one specific way.

“You have to always be cognizant and aware of how your words can affect people and how you’re going to viewed and how it can affect your brand,” Sherman said.

The “social capital” of social media

Sherman also commented on how social media can have real financial benefits for athletes who have huge numbers of Twitter followers and who have built a trusted “brand” online.

“If you pay attention enough, you can start to get a feel for how your brand is doing by the opinions of others,” Sherman said.

Those opinions, on what someone thinks of his clothes, shoes, etc., can have a real implications for an athlete’s brand. “All that information is valuable, it’s social capital, it’s something that you can get real monetary value from,” he added.

Sherman said that if you gain followers, companies might pay you to tweet support for them. In reality, although marketing through power Twitter users has been going on for awhile now, the capital that can be earned by leveraging fame on Twitter or Facebook is still untapped.

The impact of being real

Being outspoken or being pigeon-holed by perceptions  in the world of social media and mainstream media can have monetary effects in terms of not getting a deal as well.

Domonique Foxworth said, “As much as you try to portray the true you on Twitter, it’s still 140 characters and people make assumptions.”

“Richard’s story is that he’s a … thug, that’s his story. While people want to make this one story about you, they don’t want to learn who you actually are, if you make a 140 character message, that could prohibit you [from getting a deal].”

“There is a cost sometimes to take some stances,” Foxworth added. He said that when he talks about gay rights, there is often a Twitter backlash with people calling him names or attacking him. “There is a cost to making these overtures about major issues and trying to present who you are. People make a caricature of you in their mind and decide that’s who you are.”

Foxworth said that most athletes on social media only get one story. Referencing Larry Fitzgerald, Foxworth said that people look up to him because he can run fast or catch a ball well, but they have no idea who he really is, or how much he does for equal rights and missions in Africa.

The discussion moved to a conversation about the use of the word “thug” and some of the racist undertones of a lot of the talk on social media.

They also talked about creating and exposing more kids, especially in the inner city, to the opportunities that are available through education and learning.

As Larry Fitzgerald said, “You sit down with some of these children in inner city schools and you ask them what their goals are and they tell you that they just want to graduate from high school. Since when is that a goal? That should be the norm.” He added that kids should aspire to greater things.

“What you see on TV, the Richard Shermans, Arian Fosters, those guys are great, and they are achieving their goals, but there are other avenues you can explore that can be just as successful as what we are doing as well,” Fitzgerald said.

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