Sport, Twitter Hashtags, and the Public Sphere: Curt Schilling Case Study

Instantly, the hashtag #CurtSchilling became a flashpoint for debate about the issue on Twitter. Thousands of users deployed the hashtag over the following 24 hours, either criticizing Schilling for his homophobia, or castigating ESPN for political correctness. Capturing 10,000 of those hashtags revealed fascinating findings.

By Dr. Brendan O’Hallarn (Old Dominion University)

“Twitter is Destroying America”

This stark headline greeted readers of current affairs and politics website The Week early in 2017, after a particularly ugly Presidential election campaign. The piece joined others with similarly bleak prognoses in The Atlantic and Medium as the popular social media site faced a rash of criticism over the prevalence of bad behaviors by its users.

For me, unabashed Twitter enthusiast, the critique represented a challenge. Can the enlightened, pro-democratic discourse Twitter promised during its hopeful early days

NASSM Blog Habermas
 Jürgen Habermas

as a vital organizing tool used by Arab Spring protesters still be realized? Can it still offer the potential to create dialogue akin to Jürgen Habermas’ public sphere?

The passion and consumption pattern of sport fans, along with specific aspects of Twitter architecture—notably the nimble hashtag—could spur the type of online discourse that Habermas termed deliberative democracy. Of course, barriers exist to that construct, notably the limitation on the length of tweets and the Online Disinhibition Effect, the tendency for online interactions to turn angry and negative.

On April 20, 2016, a former World Series-winning pitcher decided to make his political views very public.

The Military Child Education Coalition 17th National Seminar
Curt Schilling

Schilling was fired after sharing a meme on his Facebook wall about HB2, the North Carolina law which prohibits transgender people from choosing which bathrooms to use. It featured a picture of a large man in ill-fitting women’s clothing and the caption: “Let him in! To the restroom with your daughter or else you are a narrow minded, judgmental, unloving, racist bigot who needs to die!!!” Schilling was swiftly fired by ESPN.

Clearly, two “teams” of Twitter users materialized—with pro-Schilling and pro-firing tweets appearing in abundance. Analyzing the conversation patterns demonstrated there was very little interaction between the “poles”—the two sides were almost exclusively talking past each other.

However, an online questionnaire given to users of #CurtSchilling in the time interval of the study revealed three interesting things:

  1. The users themselves felt a tremendous kinship with other users of the hashtag, feeling like they were part of a collective conversation;
  2. Almost universally, they had no interest in communicating with the other “side” in the debate, feeling like everyone’s mind was already made up; however,
  3. Despite the lack of interactions, hashtag users knew all of the arguments being put forward by the other side. Even though they weren’t discussing the issue actively with them, they were consuming the alternative viewpoints.

Why This Matters:

The general fulfillment from users of the hashtag and the awareness of differing viewpoints (even if not commented upon) suggest some behavior approaching the Habermasian public sphere is present in the interactions.

For #Sportsbiz Professionals:

If they are running an active Twitter feed for their organization, the feeling that “engagement” with followers is the only way to feel like your feed is making an impact. Sometimes it’s worth simply knowing that even if they don’t voice their opinions, people are listening.


For those interested in reading in more detail, find the full research article here.

Student Corner: NASSM Doctoral Grant Winners

Checking in with the 2015 NASSM Doctoral Research Grant Recipients

 By Andrea Geurin (Story idea submitted by Stacy Warner, Eastern Carolina University)

Established in 2012, the NASSM Doctoral Research Grant supports student research in the sport management community. At last year’s NASSM Conference in Ottawa, three student projects received funding totaling nearly $5,000. We thought we’d check in with the 2015 grant recipients to report on their progress to date:

Jesse Mala and Michael Corral, University of Connecticut PhD Students

Jesse and Michael were awarded a grant to assist with a research project on the impact of a sport-based authentic adolescent leadership program on school climate. According to the uconnresearch team, who are both in their second year of the PhD program and expect to graduate in May 2018, they ran a pilot program last spring and have since begun running their program as an in-school intervention. They currently work with 20-25 students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. At the beginning of the school year, they conducted pre-test surveys to measure school connectedness and authentic leadership. In just a few months they will conduct a post-test of the same survey, as well as focus groups with the students and teachers.

After completing his PhD, Jesse hopes to secure a tenure-track faculty position at a research institution, where he said he hopes to, “continue in the field of sport-based youth development and continue to examine its impact on youth, schools and communities.” Michael hopes to work in a policy and programming-related role at the state or district level for a K-12 public education system.


Bradley Baker & Christine Wegner, Temple University

 Bradley and Christine were awarded the doctoral research grant to aid their research on the role of group-level characteristics in facilitating the retention and satisfaction of templevolunteers. According to Bradley, they’re working with “adult volunteers who lead a running-based intervention program designed to encourage development of healthy exercise habits and career and academic mentoring among at-risk youth.”

Thus far, the research team collected its initial data from 189 volunteers in January, and they plan to conduct a second round of data collection in May, at which time they will test their hypotheses. Their goal is to present their findings at the 2017 NASSM Conference and to submit a manuscript to the Journal of Sport Management.

 Bradley is currently working on his dissertation and expects to earn his PhD in the spring of 2017, at which time he hopes to pursue a career in academia. Christine is also in the process of finishing her dissertation, and recently accepted an Assistant Professor position at the University of Florida, where she will begin in the fall of 2016.

Gashaw Abeza, University of Ottawa

Gashaw received a grant to help fund his multi-stage study focusing on social media in relationship marketing. According to Gashaw, the grant allowed him to purchase the NVivo qualitative data analysis software package, cover the transcription costs of uottawainterviews he’s conducted with professional sport teams’ senior managers, purchase gift cards for his focus group participants, and travel to present his research at a conference. He currently has one manuscript relating to this research project under review, and has submitted two abstracts from this research to academic conferences. He also plans to submit one additional manuscript to a peer-reviewed journal.

Gashaw is in the process of completing his PhD and hopes to finish within the next few months. He’s currently teaching courses in the sport management program at Southern Methodist University. He said, “My hope as a researcher and teacher in the field of sport management is to contribute to both the advancement of the body of knowledge and the development of academic infrastructures in sport management.”

For any students interested in applying for the 2016 Doctoral Research Grant, more information on the award and application process can be found here. Please note that applications are due on March 25, 2016.


Research: Social Media & the Olympics

Social Media and the Olympic Games: Lessons Learned in London;  Looking Ahead to Rio

By Andrea N. Geurin, Ph.D. Twitter_bird_icon
New York University

Hello, fellow NASSM members and welcome to the first-ever NASSM blog post!

As part of the Promotions & Publicity Committee, I offered to write the first post in an attempt to show everyone the types of pieces we hope to publish on this site. We have a great line-up of writers and topics for the next few months so there will be plenty more examples to come. The committee’s hope is that the blog will serve as a place to connect industry and academia.

I was fortunate enough to get a visit here in Australia from my friend, colleague, and Chair of the P&P Committee, Bri Newland, a few weeks ago. Bri and I had a wonderful couple of days to catch up, go to the beach (it’s summer here!), and also brainstorm ideas for this first blog post. One thing that she and I both love is the Olympics, and we discussed our mutual excitement for the upcoming Games in Rio. This led to discussions about the last Summer Olympics in London and how it was dubbed the “social media Olympics”. Before I knew it we had devised an idea for a blog post on social media – lessons learned from London and looking ahead to Rio.

About a week after this conversation with Bri, I was on a Skype call with some colleagues in the U.S. to discuss research ideas relating to social media and the Rio Games. A very interesting outcome from that call was that none of us could recall much research that had been done on social media at the London Games, which seemed quite peculiar to all of us given the amount of attention that was given to London and social media when the Olympics were taking place. I personally published a piece about online news coverage of the Games in six different countries, and we were able to find a handful of studies that involved social media, but the amount of literature on this topic was definitely lacking. This led me to create a list of three lessons I think we can learn from London as we look ahead to Rio:

1) There is room for (and a need for) researchers to examine the role of social media in Rio.

While it is fairly easy to collect content from social media accounts for analysis, it would be far more beneficial for both our academic field and sport management practitioners if researchers were able to partner with industry organizations (e.g., national governing bodies of sport, Olympic sponsors, the Rio 2016 organizing committee, etc.) and develop mutually beneficial research projects that the industry partners could utilize before/during/after the Games, while also providing important data that would help the literature on sport and social media grow in a meaningful way.

2) From a practical standpoint, broadcasters like NBC must evolve with the times.

I lived in the United States during the London Games and one of my biggest frustrations, and one that I know many other friends and colleagues shared was that NBC waited until the evenings to broadcast the marquee events. Since these were shown on tape delay, I rarely watched anything without already knowing the outcome because of social media posts or news websites’ reporting. It isn’t realistic to believe consumers will avoid their computers or the Internet all day in anticipation of the events like gymnastics, track and field, swimming, etc., so it would be better for broadcasters to show the events as they are happening, and also to encourage more online conversations about these events. Inviting fans to attend virtual “tweet-ups” during certain Olympic competitions or hosting photo competitions on Instagram in which fans are asked to imitate their favorite moments from the Games would help to bring together fans from around the country or even the globe. NBC (or other broadcasters) could do a better job facilitating these conversations and also acknowledging or highlighting these conversations on the live broadcasts.

3) There is an opportunity to better educate Olympic athletes on how they can use social media during the Games.

For any of us who are on social media, we know that athletes love posting to these platforms. During the 2012 Olympics, however, many of them seemed to clam up or appeared nervous about what they were posting. That witty runner you loved so much suddenly wasn’t displaying his hilarious sense of humor, or the volleyball player who regularly posted behind-the-scenes pictures of herself and her teammates suddenly didn’t post anything. This is most likely due to the International Olympic Committee’s “Social and Digital Media Guidelines”, which athletes are expected to follow during the Olympics. For many of these athletes, the Olympics are their one chance at making a name for themselves with an audience beyond the hard-core fans of their sport, and social media is one way in which they can accomplish this by reaching a wide range of fans and potential sponsors. I’ve heard from many of the 2012 athletes that because they didn’t fully understand these guidelines, they were nervous and decided not to post anything, or to only make a few posts during the Games to avoid getting in trouble. This presents an opportunity for NGBs to engage their athletes in greater social media training prior to the Games to make sure the athletes understand the rules, and guidance during the Games to ensure that athletes are posting in a way that follows the rules but also showcases their personality and shares their experiences in Rio. This might also be an interesting opportunity for academics to partner with NGBs to assist in providing this training and guidance.

These are just a few of my thoughts and suggestions on making the social media aspects of the Rio Olympics more effective than London. What additional ideas do you have that would make social media better in Rio? Please share your comments below!

Social Media Success

Shokers ESPN

Social Media Success: Sport PR Students Bring ESPN’s College GameDay to Wichita State University

By Andrea N. Geurin

In the past, Mike Ross’s sport public relations classes at Wichita State University typically completed a social media assignment centered on a fictitious topic such as an imaginary Heisman Award campaign or Naismith Award campaign. In the fall of 2014, however, Ross saw an opportunity for his students to make a real difference for the university, and the assignment turned into one that led to WSU hosting ESPN’s College GameDay show in February 2015.

To achieve their goal of bringing the GameDay show to Wichita, the students were divided into groups to design social media strategies for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest. Each group was required to submit a planning module outlining their strategies for each individual social media platform. The groups took turns managing each platform, and by the time the assignment was completed, their campaigns had garnered over 89,000 impressions on Twitter and nearly 7,000 followers on Facebook.

Ross said that the groups were graded in four areas – planning quality, evaluation quality, execution of their plan on each platform, and creativity.Shockers

“I did very little to limit what they could and could not put on social media throughout,” said Ross. “I did give one parameter in that we were not going to be negative towards ESPN, other fans, etc., regardless of what they posted.”

The hands-on semester-long assignment led to a great deal of positive feedback from the students, who said that they felt as though their knowledge on the subject matter increased and the project itself helped them understand how the course content related to the ‘real world’.

“Our students need to know how to operate on social media, film and edit video, and know how to write for various audiences. The chance to give them a hands-on experience with these things in the class can only help them down the road,” said Ross.

The campaign not only helped bring GameDay to Wichita, but it also resulted in a great deal of media coverage and publicity for Wichita State’s sport management program, particularly Ross’s sport public relations class. Newspapers, websites, and television stations throughout the state of Kansas picked up the story and interviewed Ross and students in his class.

Ross’s background is certainly conducive to teaching a course on sport public relations. Prior to his career in academia, he spent nearly 10 years in media relations with Wichita State’s athletic department, as well as serving as the media coordinator for the 2011 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament site in Wichita, a role he will take on again in 2018 for the men’s tournament.

“We are all working to prepare the next generation of sport managers, and each of us do it differently,” said Ross. “The end goal is to provide a solid foundation for students to build upon once they complete our programs. That, to me, was why the project and campaign were successful.”