Football Stars Debate ‘The Social Capital of the Savvy Athlete’

NFL players Richard Sherman, Arian Foster, Larry Fitzgerald, and Domonique Foxworth discussed Twitter pros and cons on marketing and race relations at Harvard Business School.
by Carmen Nobel

Nobody understands the power of Twitter better than Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. In a now-infamous television interview in January after a National Football League playoff game, Sherman briefly ranted against rival Michael Crabtree, referring to the San Francisco 49ers player as "a sorry receiver," followed by a message for Crabtree: "Don't you ever talk about me!"

Twitter members reacted forcefully and en masse, to the point that major news networks published stories with headlines like "Twitter users react to Richard Sherman's postgame rant" and "Richard Sherman sets Twitter off." T-shirts emblazoned with "Don't you ever talk about me" are now available on Sherman's website for $29.95.

Sherman was among the panelists at a recent forum entitled "Unrealized Value? The Social Capital of the Savvy Athlete," held in front of a standing-room-only audience at the Harvard Innovation Lab at Harvard Business School. Other participants included Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, and Domonique Foxworth, former president of the National Football League Players Association and an MBA candidate in the class of 2015 at Harvard Business School.

The event was moderated by Anita Elberse, the Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, whose research focuses on marketing strategies for firms and superstars in the entertainment industry.

The forum began with a discussion about the marketing power of social media, but quickly evolved into a conversation about race issues in the sports entertainment industry.

'unbelievable Platform'

All acknowledged that Twitter has played a huge role in influencing their individual reputations and brands. "It gave me an unbelievable platform to reach people," said Fitzgerald, whose Twitter feed has some 1.75 million followers.

Foster agreed, noting that Twitter gives him a chance to talk publicly about issues outside of the NFL; his Tweets run the gamut from thoughts on astrophysics to barbs about the National College Athletic Association. When asked who would win the NCAA basketball tournament, Foster Tweeted:

Ncaa will win. They'll get billions, players get a trophy.RT @mcorado33: @ArianFoster

"Anyone who opens a Twitter account can view my thoughts," said Foster, who has about 438,000 Twitter followers. While he didn't set out to benefit commercially when he joined Twitter, he said, "The more followers you get, the more opportunity for monetary gain."

In fact, investors may soon have a chance to own a piece of Foster's burgeoning brand. Last October, startup Fantex Brokerage Services announced plans to sell stocks related to the star power of an individual athlete's brand. Its first trading stock, which will mark the company's initial public offering, "will be linked to the value and performance of the brand of Houston Texans Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster," according to a company press release. Fantex paid $10 million for a minority stake in Foster's brand.

At the Harvard forum, Foster said that Security and Exchange Commission regulations prohibit him from talking about the deal pending the IPO. But generally: "My goal is to get athletes—and kids who are thinking about becoming athletes—to start thinking of themselves as businesses and not just athletes," he said.

Sherman took the opportunity, as he has in previous public forums, to talk about how much he loves snacking on Fruit Gushers, a fact that has made headlines of its own. "I don't get paid by Gushers, but if I mention them on Twitter, they'll send me a whole bunch of Gushers," said Sherman, who has about 915,000 Twitter followers.

Heading to the @Nike yardline event still got my @gushers
— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) March 29, 2014

Elberse asked about how Twitter has influenced the players' associations with in philanthropic organizations, noting Fitzgerald's involvement in breast cancer awareness, multiple humanitarian trips to Africa, and his First Down Fund, which benefits child-focused nonprofits.

Twitter's Tug

Sherman noted that while Twitter can be a valuable way to learn about potential philanthropic investments, it also can be dangerously overwhelming. If he responds to one inquiry on Twitter but not another, someone inevitably calls him out on the perceived sleight. "There is a down side," he said. "You get stretched."

At that point the panelists addressed the topic of Sherman's rant against Crabtree, discussing the fact that fans can insult players on Twitter with little recourse, but players can't fight back without taking a reputation hit. "People look at athletes and think we should always be above reproach," Sherman said. "Well, if you're not above reproach, why should I be?"

Regarding the reactions to the rant, "People said I had no class," Sherman said. "Well, what is class in sports? Should I have gone all cookie cutter and said [Crabtree] played a great game? No. I don't think he played a great game."

In Sherman's defense, "If you call Richard Sherman a thug, you have never seen a thug," Foster said, drawing laughs from the audience, which comprised members of the press and the Harvard community. "Not to discount your street credibility," he added.

Sherman said he in fact had deliberately avoided obscenities in the rant. Still, "They threw [the word] 'thug' out there, I think because I'm African American," Sherman said. "I haven't heard a Caucasian called a thug."

The post-rant backlash on Twitter included plenty of more obvious racial slurs, too. "Twitter was a great barometer," Sherman said. "It really took us back to where we are in race relations."

"One 140-character message can hurt you," said Foxworth, who said he has been the target of many hateful Tweets reacting to his public support of gay rights.

"Whether we realize it or not, there's a cost to making these major overtures," Foxworth said.

Elberse asked the players, all of whom are African-American, whether they believe that there's a public perception of white athletes as more poised, professional, and thoughtful than black athletes. The consensus: Absolutely.

Foster noted a key difference between professional football and hockey, in which the players are predominantly white. "In hockey they fight every day," Foster said. "If we fight, they call us criminals."

Calculating The Cost-benefit

When Elberse asked panelists what it meant to be "winners in a winner-take-all market," the players discussed their responsibilities as role models. Sherman said he makes a point of talking to kids not just about making money, but about managing it. "Financial literacy is not something that exists in the inner city," he said.

Foxworth said that any conversation about working hard and staying in school must be framed in terms of cost-benefit analysis. "How's astrophysics going to help me," he said, a call back to Foster's Tweets on the subject.

In a question-and-answer session, an audience member asked the panelists how they deal emotionally with the constant barrage of insults on Twitter. "I think we're tougher than you imagine," Foxworth said. "With exposure, there's the risk of being exposed."

Foster recounted an anecdote that put Twitter in perspective for him. "I put a Gandhi quote on there one, and someone responded, ['F**k] Gandhi,'" he said. "That's when I stop taking Twitter too seriously. How angry to do you have to be to hate Gandhi?"

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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    • mark clark
    Intriguing topic, disappointing content. I'd be interested in a more thoughtful discussion and in particular, more on the idea of "player brand" stocks. Is it advanced fantasy sports or something more substantial?