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Posted: May 5, 2011 5:53 p.m.

Social media in sports is great if used correctly

Facebook. Twitter. To a lesser extent, Myspace. Dubbed social media, these are the newest methods of news assimilation. News organizations use them to break information. Businesses use them to attract potential customers. Here at The News, we use Facebook exstensively to interact with our readers. It's a great way to get personal. With social media, pretty much anyone can become a quasi-reporter through the Internet, even athletes. And while social media is fast becoming a great way for professional athletes to touch base with fans, too many are using these outlets the wrong way.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rahard Mendenhall came under fire this week after comments he made via Twitter in the wake of the U.S. operation that took out Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden Sunday. Mendenhall explained himself Wednesday and even apologized for the timing of the message, but his tweet forced Steelers' president Art Rooney II to release a statement affirming the organization's gratitude to the military.

Whiles Mendenhall may have made the comments without an agenda, the fact remains that his comments were open to interpretation. More importantly, they were out there, and as everyone knows, once you say something, you can't take it back.

The problem with what Mendenhall did is he essentially went around the measures professional sports organizations have in place that prevent athletes from making boneheaded comments in the press that reflect poorly on both the organization, and athlete.

Professional sports team pay internal media professionals very well to represent their organizations in the public. But the increasing penchant for athletes to tweet and post Facebook messages has essentially taken that away that control. And while the U.S. Constitution affords citizens the right to speak their mind (for the most part), employees have an obligation to their employers not to bring on undue embarrassment. Things get even stickier for a sports team when athletes vent about fellow players, coaches or organizational decisions they may have a problem with.

There's a right and a wrong way for athletes to use social media. Updates in status, much the way Tiger Woods uses the vehicles is a great way for media outlets and fans to obtain news on their favorite sports stars.

A perfect example of how to use social media was a tweet Rory McIlroy made a day after his disastrous final-round meltdown at last month's Masters tournament. In so many words, McIlroy took a jab at himself, that he was traveling with Masters champion Charles Schwartzl and "at least one of us is wearing a green jacket". He went so far as to post a photo on Facebook of he and Schwartzl in his new blazer.

Fellow golfers also used Twitter to post messages of support for McIlroy.

These instances are examples of how athletes can and do use social media the right way.

Then there's Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco, who uses social media to lambaste coaches and voice his displeasure with just about whatever. His tweets have strained his relationship with his employer to the point where there's talk his days as a Bengal may be numbered. He's not the only one. After the Chicago Bear lost the NFC Championship game against Green Bay in January, several NFL players shared their "expert" opinions through Twitter on Jay Cutler's injury (which many said was feigned) that forced him to miss much of the second half.

Interestingly, the NFL has a policy regarding social media. It states players can use it to communicate with the public, with club permission, up to 90 minutes before games and after media interviews have concluded.

Again, you can thank Ochocinco, who built a reputation of tweeting messages during games, and even Terrell Owens, for the policy. The NFL had to essentially issue a gag order because of in-game social media and its general misuse.

That said, it's still impossible to police social media. It's unfair to single out Mendenhall for his use or misuse of social media in this instance because he didn't break the rules of the gameday stipulation. He did, however, overstep his boundaries regarding club approval.

There's a lesson to be learned here: Social media is a great outlet for anyone when used responsibly.

Like everything else on the Internet, social media falls in that gray area of regulation. The best advice I have for everyone is don't tweet or post messages on your Facebook page without considering the implications of your message.

Like email, social media messages are open to interpretation. Approach them as such.

You wouldn't fire off an email to your boss minutes after being chastised for something you did. Well, you might, but if you do it regularly, you won't be employed very long.

Generally you'd let it marinate until you've cooled off, then change it or delete it alltogether.

For whatever reason, many athletes often don't think this way. Maybe it's because they feel they're untouchable and they won't get fired, especially if they're a star. But athletes will find out there's a tolerance level that is increasingly decreasing.

Social media has its place in society, even for professional athletes and coaches. When used wisely, it gives us access and personal insight we've never had. Still, there's a responsibility that comes with all that fame (and money). It's time for everyone to take that responsibility seriously.

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