McIlroy should ignore the baying mob and continue to 'just do it'

Sat, Jan 26, 2013, 00:00

SIDELINE CUT:Would Jesus Tweet? If He was to walk in today’s world, isn’t it probable that He’d see good old Twitter as the most convenient way to hastily accumulate “followers”, to keep tabs on the vibe emanating from the Vatican (Pope Benedict XVI, a recent convert to Twitter, has a hefty 1.5 million followers – just nine million less than Harry Stiles of One Direction) and perhaps also to take an occasional sneaky peek into the Twitter world of Wayne Rooney or the Dali Lama, who has six million followers and counting.

Like icons of pop music and films, the biggest sports personalities spend much of their time in flux, always either travelling to the next big game or race or tournament or preparing for it. It is a bizarre life, moving through crowds of people but spending a lot of time alone and cut off because of their fame and popularity.

For athletes who spend a lot of time in airport lounges or in locker rooms or hanging around for press conferences or sponsors’ events, Twitter has become both a really useful plaything and a straightforward means of communication with fans. It has quickly accumulated astonishing numbers of people eager for 140-character updates into thoughts and views, however profound or trivial.

Le Bron James for instance, who tweets under the bashful @kingjames has a whopping army of seven millions followers. Nearly three million people follow Tiger. And Rory McIlroy has over 1.5 million followers, almost as many people as live in Northern Ireland.

You have to assume the vast majority of those are following McIlroy because they are golf fans. But as McIlroy discovered this week, political persuasion often overshadows sporting allegiance.

One of the most refreshing things about McIlroy is for all his politeness and friendliness, he has a bluntly honest edge and isn’t afraid to speak his mind. He has been involved in several amusing spats on Twitter already.

Air his views

But when he idly decided to air his views on Barack Obama’s inauguration speech with the decidedly vanilla observation: “I must say … I love watching Barack Obama making speeches #Inspiring.”, he couldn’t have been prepared for the response.

Minutes later, McIlroy found himself in the dock as the comments poured in. Just reading them would make you indignant on McIlroy’s behalf.

For instance: “How about you shut the f**k up and go back to your own country” (Whohh, pal ... that’s a two-time Major champion and Ulster season ticket holder you’re talking to. Like to hear you say – sorry, Tweet – that with Big Darren and Stephen Ferris standing beside him).

“No offence Rory but either play for the US in the Ryder Cup or tweet on your own screwed up country. We don’t need any help.” (Hey ... steady on. And which screwed up country? Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland?).

“Its called voter fraud. Wouldn’t expect a Scott to understand.” (Voter fraud! Bet Al Gore chuckled at that one. And he’s ain’t no Scot – or Scott! He’s Irish. Northern Irish! But he likes the Republic too! And he may play for Britain in the Olympics. But he ain’t no Scot!).

“Go back to Ireland.”(Now you’re talking).

“I promise you that people responsible of his re-election have no clue who you are.” (Sir, I promise you they do. The Obama chess masters are mostly white and Ivy League and so they dig golf. And anyhow, the cat’s part of the Nike family by now. Everyone knows Nike.)

It went on and on, prompting the implacable McIlroy to acknowledge the harsh nature of the responses before posting the obvious question: “If he’s so bad, how was he re-elected #just askin”.

And off they went again. For McIlroy, it was a brief and valuable lesson of what happens when you make even the mildest political statement. Michael Jordan, the first, last and only Nike god, has remained steadfastly apolitical and moderate for his entire public life. McIlroy himself has hardly put a foot wrong in navigating the complex issues of religion and identity that come with being from Northern Ireland.

International profile

But the Obama episode offered further proof to McIlroy of just how rapidly his international profile is changing. As the rising star of golf, McIlroy seemed to have perfected the balance of blooming as one of the most marketable sports stars in the game while maintaining a semblance of normality in his life, going along to Ravenhill to watch rugby and heading out on the town in Belfast on a Friday night.

But his stunning rise to world number one has changed everything. His multi- million dollar sponsorship with Nike means he has joined an elite group of sports stars like LeBron James, whose audience and fan base is international. Over the past 20 years, sports stars have been schooled in what and what not to say to the mainstream media.

One of the most unusual elements of Twitter is that it creates the potential, at least, for direct, unfiltered communication between the stars and those who watch them from afar.

The abuse fired at McIlroy was in stark contrast to the fawning fandom he usually receives from his followers on Twitter. And the tone was clear: Shut up and entertain us with your wizardry at golf.

The reaction to McIlroy’s casual praise for Obama’s inauguration speech – surely the most widely televised event in the world that day – was telling: it has become so rare for sports stars to offer any opinion on politics, controversial or otherwise, that a mild expression of political interest provoked an outraged reaction.

The episode is already dimming – the world of Twitter is nothing if not ethereal. But it may prompt McIlroy to think twice about airing his opinions in public in future ... to be more guarded and mindful of his fan base at all times and so to remain so moderate that he offends nobody.

If that happens, it will be a shame. One of the best things about McIlroy is that he has always had a bit of an irreverent edge. If he feels like speaking his mind or giving his opinion he should follow the famous advice and ‘just do it’.

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