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SportsMonday Column: For better or worse, Twitter has rewritten the book on player-fan interaction

Terra Mollengraff/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 25, 2011

Denard Robinson has always been elusive.

The nation’s fourth-leading rusher has been terrorizing defenses since he first picked up a football in his hometown of Deerfield Beach, Fla.

After joining Twitter on Sept. 12, the only thing quicker than Denard himself was his follower count. He reached 10,000 followers by 2 p.m. the next day.

But on his 21st birthday last Thursday — Sept. 22 — Robinson put himself on a tee. He invited 25,000-plus to his birthday party at a local bowling alley.

“Come out to colonial lanes for my birthday tonight at 10pm!” Robinson wrote on his Twitter account, @DenardX. “No autographs, no photos, just fun.”

But that was just the A-list.

Hundreds of his followers hit the retweet button, passing the invite on to thousands more people.

Robinson’s original tweet later disappeared — but the message was sent and quite a crowd arrived to Colonial Lanes to wish the star quarterback a happy 21st.

When asked about the bowling event during the press conference on Sunday, Robinson laughed, then leaned forward in his chair and hit his head on the table three times.

He said little, just laughed. For a player so humble and reserved, he didn’t expect quite the response he’d gotten.

“We went out bowling, had a good time,” he said quietly.

The truth came out: a good crowd saw Robinson bowl consecutive games of 200, 160 and 170. It was a good birthday.

But as for his tenure on Twitter, it might be coming to a close.

“I don’t know, man,” Robinson said. “Twitter? I don’t know if I’m gonna keep tweeting. I don’t want these questions coming up here.”

In truth, Robinson wasn’t built for the social network scene. His most popular post read, “I kidnapped HARD WORK and SUCCESS is the ransom!”

Brilliant. Inspiring. Also posted above the whiteboard in my Algebra classroom back in high school.

So, @DenardX’s days might be numbered, but that isn’t across the board. Much of the athletic community — even here at Michigan — has taken to Twitter.

And it’s radically altered the player-fan dynamic.

Players are more accessible, uncensored and unedited — much to the chagrin of English professors worldwide.

Some fans love the intimacy, breaking down the mystique of athletes. Players reveal their human side, sharing information about meals, music, workouts and more.

There’s no team media representative hovering over their shoulders as they type. At times there probably should be, but that’s the bliss of the social network system.

Players are people.

But Twitter isn’t one-way glass, it’s a two-way avenue where fans can interact — to praise or harass.

The NCAA has cracked down on fans using Facebook and Twitter to contact recruits, trying to sway their commitment decisions. But the guidelines are foggy at best.

And for current college players, belligerent fans have a free shot at a standstill target. It’s a backside linebacker blitzing with an open look.

Former Michigan point guard Darius Morris was hounded by Wolverine fans for his decision to enter the NBA draft this past May. He was told he would never be a Michigan Man or be welcomed back.

It’s dangerous.

Take Denard: he’s completed 44 percent of his passes since joining Twitter. Rest assured that @DenardX has heard from angry fans.

It’s the same conversation that happens in the stands when Robinson lofts a pass five feet over his running back’s head. But this time it’s feeding straight to his phone for him to read.

It doesn’t seem worth it.

Twitter is fine for most anyone, but maybe high-profile players like Robinson should cut the profile.

It was almost over before it happened in Robinson’s case. In early August, he laughed at the notion of Denard Robinson on Twitter.

“I can barely text, first of all,” Robinson said at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. “So me being on Twitter, I don’t think I’d have very much to say. I’d just have a Twitter for no reason.”

There were plenty of fake accounts before @DenardX. Fifteen accounts still hold the name “Denard Robinson.”

“(Last year,) some of my teammates was like, ‘Yeah, I’m following you on Twitter,’ ” Robinson said, shaking his head. “I said, ‘No, you’re not following me on Twitter.”

Now they are, and so are nearly 27,000 others.

Just think — you almost missed out on the invitation.

— Nesbitt is just 26,138 followers behind @Denard X, but would invite them all to his birthday party. RSVP on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt