Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series spotlighting the impact of social networking and new media on college athletics, particularly basketball. Today, Andy Moore writes about the effects these outlets have on current athletes. Tomorrow, The Chronicle looks into recruiting, and Thursday, the focus moves to the Duke basketball program’s response to a changing landscape.

Early this August, Duke point guard Nolan Smith took to the popular Web site Twitter.com to share with the world his thoughts about returning to Durham.

“About to touchdown in Atlanta, and then eat, and back on plane to Durham aka Bullcity aka bullshity aka durhole aka where i goto school! bye,” he wrote.

It was a moment of remarkable candor from one of the faces of the team—one that would have been impossible in the days before the advent of new media devices like Twitter and Facebook. It was also a statement that, for better or worse, shed light onto the state of Durham-Duke relations in an unflattering way, even if it was just an attempt at humor.

In the past, Duke men’s basketball players underwent intense media training in order to avoid controversial statements like the one above. Now, that training means less than it used to. Free from the confines of a press conference or the watchful eye of a media director, and with no less than the entire Internet at their disposal, players like Smith can express themselves more openly than ever before—and to an audience larger than ever imagined. It’s enough to keep a coaching staff on its toes.  

“Throughout the years, we’ve always sat down with the guys about how to talk to the media,” associate head coach Chris Collins said. “There’s no question that the rise of Twitter and Facebook has added another addition to that…. We just want our guys now to be careful about what they say on it.”

Players on Twitter

Currently, seven men’s basketball players have accounts with Twitter, a site whose default setting allows anyone in the world see your updates. None of the seven Blue Devils have opted to lock their profiles, which would let only approved people view their tweets. It all makes for a combustible situation, especially if the players feel they can “say a lot more on Twitter than… in person,” as Smith said Oct. 15.

“I think that having [Twitter] accounts [is] very dangerous,” said Seth Davis, a Sports Illustrated writer and CBS college basketball analyst. “If I were a coach, I might have a rule against it. Kids don’t always know better… and now [what they say or do] can be all over the Internet.”

Smith (username: @NdotSmitty) is the most prolific of the seven players on the site, having tweeted 815 times since opening his account. Newcomer Seth Curry (@sdotcurry) takes the honor of most followers among his teammates: 4,605 friends, family, and strangers monitor his shout-outs to his brother, Stephen, comments on the Yankees’ play in the World Series and other day-to-day observations about his practice schedule and classes. Rounding out the group are Casey Peters, Lance Thomas, Steve Johnson, Ryan Kelly and Jon Scheyer. All of them have tweeted before (Thomas is apparently a huge “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” fan), but none can match Curry or Smith’s prolific totals and casual tone.

It is precisely this outspokenness that creates an air of unpredictability with player-fan interactions. In the past, to get an interview with a player, one had to go through the proper channels in the sports information department. Now, one can simply ask the player a question online, and it’s up to the athlete’s discretion to respond. It is possible that banning players from using Twitter will be a move made in the future, but Paul Levinson, the noted Fordham University professor and writer of the work, “New New Media,” thinks preventative measures taken by athletic departments will not contain new media’s progress.

“Everything that people do now is being tweeted about,” he said. “Any coach that tells players not to tweet is very ignorant about our new media environment. This is like saying back in ancient Greece, ‘Hey, don’t talk to anybody.’ It’s the same thing.”

The Facebook Dilemma

It is difficult to say how many players are on the Web site which has become so central to every college student’s life: Facebook. The element of privacy offered by the five-year-old Web site differs it from the openness of Twitter.

Sometimes, though, that privacy is just an illusion. That was the case earlier this year with University of Kansas sophomore basketball player Tyshawn Taylor, who dislocated his thumb in a fight with Jayhawk football players, then took to Facebook to express his side of the situation. He used racial slurs, and what had started as a private, in-school matter quickly became a national story.

At Duke, no players have created a media storm like Taylor did. But it could happen. The athletic department has no policy on whether team members can have Facebook profiles.

“The [pages] are not monitored,” Collins said. “We allow them to do it, and we trust them, and keep an eye on it if it becomes a problem or a distraction. But right now, we trust our guys.”

Just four years after the intense scrutiny of the Duke Lacrosse trial, and its now-infamous misuse of technology in Ryan McFadyen’s email, a less than vigilant social media policy could leave the Blue Devils with a media circus of its own.

Seth Davis, for one, is worried about the future, and whether the athletes may be unfairly exposed online.

“It’s not fair if you play for Duke—you’re such a public figure. You’re still entitled to some privacy, though, and you may not be doing anything wrong [in pictures online], but there still may be repercussions.”

The Irving Effect

Kyrie Irving, Duke’s point guard of the future and fifth-ranked player in his class by Scout.com, committed to the Blue Devils Oct. 22.

What is normally the beginning of something big—committing to play for such a well-known school—was for him the culmination of months of hype, both deserved and self-generated. Irving had kept his fans continuously updated on his recruiting process through his Twitter account.

It is one of the best and most recent examples of amateur athletes using the tools of social media to their advantage. The blue-chip prospect bypassed traditional media to tell his side of the story, on his terms, continuing to use Twitter to bait Duke, Kentucky and Indiana fans right up until the decision was made.

When it came time for him to make his pick, Irving was conscious of at least one of the downsides of finally picking a school.

“Announcement tmrw on espnu…let’s get this stuff over with…alot of you may be surprised and disappointed..so I expect to lose alot of followers it’s cool though lol,” he tweeted Oct. 21.

Irving’s tweets, and Smith’s as well, are at the forefront of a new age of how college athletes get their word out. It’s a different time, but different doesn’t necessarily mean bad, at least to Paul Levinson.

“By and large, more information is better…. If you’re in any kind of public sphere, the more the public sees of you and can flesh you out as a person, the more they can follow you and be devoted to you. It humanizes the athlete.

“If he can do it in an intelligent way, it’s worthwhile.”