Stepping into the (Social Media) Game: Building Athlete Identity via Twitter

Stepping into the (Social Media) Game: Building Athlete Identity via Twitter

Jimmy Sanderson
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2211-1.ch023
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This chapter explores how rookie athletes in Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), and National Hockey League (NHL), used Twitter as an identity expression tool. A representative sample of tweets from athletes selected in the first round of the 2011 amateur draft of each sports league was selected for analysis. Results revealed that identity manifested in the following ways: (a) Athletes as dedicated workers; (b) Athletes as pop culture consumers; (c) Athletes as sports fans; (d) Athletes as motivators; (e) Athletes as information seekers; and (f) Athletes as everyday people. Through social media, athletes can more actively and diversely assert their identity. This action fosters identification, liking, and parasocial interaction with fans as athletes appear more approachable and similar. The ability to construct and disseminate a variety of identities holds important implications for athletes, which are discussed in the concluding section of the chapter.
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Social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter have rapidly permeated the sports world (Sanderson, 2011a). One of the more noteworthy trends emerging from this marriage is athletes using these communicative channels to become more active media producers (Sanderson & Kassing, 2011). This includes athletes optimizing self-presentation and projecting preferred identities to the public, countering mass media framings and providing fans with opportunities to validate these identities (Sanderson, 2008). Through social media, athletes promote and emphasize aspects of their identity that would be difficult to transmit using traditional media channels. For example, Florida Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison uses Twitter to display advisor, sarcastic, and humorous identities to his followers as represented by this small sample. To one person who asked, “@LoMoMarlins I just want to sext you all day,” Morrison responded “It’ll have 2 b after 9pm. Im out of daytime minutes this month”; “Fellas, if she doesn’t kiss you by the 3rd date, she is in it for the free food…”; and “Just challenged the guy at the urinal next to me to a sword fight #StrangerDanger” (

Morrison’s tweets have been well-received by his followers but also have created controversy with the Marlins organization. During the 2011 baseball season, Marlins president Larry Beinfest publicly requested that Morrison tone down the content of his tweets (Gardner, 2011). Later that season, the Marlins temporarily demoted Morrison to the minor leagues, a move that was heavily speculated to be influenced by his Twitter activity (Brown, 2011).

Social media offers a number of advantages to athletes (e.g., counter media framing, connect with teammates and fans) (Kassing and Sanderson, 2010; Sanderson, 2011a; Sanderson & Kassing, 2011) and it is not surprising that they have adopted social media at rapid rates. Although social media is extensively used by well-known athletes, rookie athletes are using social media to build personas and cultivate fan followings. How incoming professional athletes use Twitter to express identity is the focus of this research. Athletes use a variety of social media tools, but at the present time, Twitter is the social media tool “of choice” amongst athletes (Sanderson & Kassing, 2011) and serves as the data source for this chapter. The chapter examines tweets from a convenience sample of athletes selected in the first round of the 2011 Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL) player drafts for a two month period.

To start, I review relevant literature on social media and identity, and the influence of social media on athlete identity and discuss the dialogical self theory (Hermans, Kempen, and Van Loon, 1992). This theory provides a useful framework to interpret athlete identity expressed via social media. Subsequently, I present themes emerging from the sample of athlete tweets while discussing implications arising from the data. I conclude by offering directions for future research and additional readings on this subject.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Self-Presentation: The way a person projects her/himself to others that may not always be identified by targets.

Tweet: A message that one creates and disseminated via social media site Twitter.

Social media: Media that is designed to be participative, collaborative, and foster community between people.

Identity: Categories that a person associates with him/herself, that are influenced by internal and relational factors and expressed and modified through communication.

Dialogical Self Theory: A theory which suggests that people move between a number of positions or “I’s” in presenting themselves to public audiences.

Re-Tweet: A Twitter message of another Twitter user that one that re-posts to their Twitter followers.

Parasocial Interaction: One-sided mediated interaction between a person and a media figure or celebrity that resembles interpersonal interaction.

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