Harvard's "Social Capital" Panel

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Richard Sherman

Richard Sherman, Other NFL Players Discuss 'Social Capital' At Harvard

Nobody understands the power of Twitter better than Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. In a now-infamous interview after the National Football Conference championship 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 ended up publishing dedicated 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 $29.99.

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 in Boston. Other participants included Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald; Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, who has a significant role in the new Kevin Costner film “Draft Day”; and Domonique Foster, 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.

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.

“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 before, to mention 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.

Elberse asked about how Twitter has influenced the players’ involvement 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. “Larry, it looks like you’re looking to set records for just the amount of causes you’re involved in,” she said wryly. “A business school professor could say that you need to focus!”

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? 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 in fact included myriad racial slurs. “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.”

“Imagine a brawl in football, and imagine the coverage,” Sherman added.

When Elberse asked the panel 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 once, and someone responded, ‘F— Gandhi,’” he said. “That’s when I stop taking Twitter too seriously.”


by Carmen Nobel | 04/25/2014