If you’re one of my Facebook or Twitter friends, you know I love the Tour de France. You probably also noticed how angry I am about ESPN’s Michael Smith laughing online and during his show, Around the Horn, about two cyclists being hit hard by a car on Sunday during stage 9 of the Tour. You can see how hard in the video shown on Dutch TV. No Dutch is required to know what the commentators are saying.

My friend Danielle Hatfield noticed my anger. She also recognized Smith’s behavior as a social media failure for ESPN. Michael Smith tweets as an ESPN reporter. Whether he knows it or not, he represents ESPN online. Danielle’s post, ESPN: When Your Brand Representatives Become a Liability, dives into this further.

How it all began

Here are the tweets Smith sent out to the world on Monday. They have been deleted from his Twitter account. My earlier screen captures can be seen on Danielle’s blog:

  • “For real, am I wrong for laughing at that Tour de France crash? Can’t get over the driver speeding off as if he didn’t know he hit someone!”
  • “I’m sorry that crash is hilarious. Every. Time.”
  • “It had been far too long since I’d angered an entire community. Today I’ve managed offend cyclists everywhere. Guess what? It’s still funny.”

That is how a man with 95,713 followers on Twitter replies publicly when he sees a car at high speed hitting two cyclists, one of whom, Johnny Hoogerland, flew through the air, landed in a barb wire fence and got 33 stitches later that night.

Eben Oliver Weiss at Bicycling magazine summed up the situation: “The true courageous athletes are picking themselves up off the pavement after hitting the road at 25 to 35 miles per hour and finishing a 140 mile ride. Not for high paying endorsements or lucrative contracts, but a true love of a sport and the desire to be there for their team mates.

tour of france espn michael smith twitter social media

StomachOfAnger t-shirt

Why oh why

You’d think ESPN would love those kinds of heroics. How could Smith be so insensitive? His derision is easily explained. Cycling doesn’t “rate” as a sport in his mind and in the mind of many Americans.

  • Cycling is too European, despite American success. American teams and cyclists are some of the best in the world. Over the last several years the Tour of California has become one of cycling’s premier events attracting the world’s best teams.
  • Cycling is boring. Lots of guys ride in a pack all day and then sprint the last 100 yards to the finish. I used to think baseball was boring, until I understood all its nuances. There’s a lot more to cycling than a novice eye picks up: strategy, history, traditions, unwritten rules, points competitions, specialties, personalities, teamwork, athleticism, grit, courage, heroes and villains.

Maybe Smith doesn’t like cyclists in their spandex outfits on expensive bikes taking up the road. Every community has its share of rude holier-than-thou jerks, including cycling. However, most cyclists are drivers too and they are doing their best to safely share the little road they have.

Backlash

Like any community already feeling maligned and misunderstood, the cycling community responded with shock, then anger. Nancy Toby was the first to rally the troops via her blog and Twitter. The story and anger spread. But the Twitter cycling community is small and currently distracted by the Tour. We’re already spending several hours a day watching and reading about the Tour. How much time is left to fight Michael Smith and his bosses at ESPN?

At first Smith lashed out at his critics saying it wasn’t that serious — they should lighten up or go play in traffic. He proceeded to tweet all day, bantering with his followers about the angry losers. A lot of those tweets seemed to have disappeared too. Many of those “losers” were people who had lost loved ones to cycling accidents or been hit by cars themselves.

tour de france espn michael smith social media twitter

Photo by HeyRocker (Flickr)

Eventually at 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, an apology was issued: “I apologize for my insensitive remarks re: the TdF crash. I recognize my comments were inappropriate given the serious nature of the crash.

ESPN has muzzled him. But does he really understand the callousness of his remarks and the influence they might have on his followers? Many in the cycling community continue to ask for his removal. He seems sure that won’t happen.

WilliamsR24: “All of these people attempting to ruin ur life and ur the jerk? It was a joke. Just like these people attacking u. A joke.”

MrMichael_Smith: “thanks man. believe me i’m good. not gonna succeed.”

Lessons

So what’s the moral of this story besides “don’t be a turd?”

Train your ambassadors. Your ambassadors are anyone on staff who blogs, tweets, comments or communicates on a public platform. People assume your organization condones their behavior. Show them how to communicate, especially to critics; don’t assume they already know.

Be constantly vigilant. If ESPN’s PR staff had monitored Smith’s tweet stream, you can be sure they would have stepped in and said, hey, buddy, cool it. But Smith kept going down the ugly path, egged on by his fans.

Examine your personal brand. Maybe ESPN approves of Smith’s style? Maybe, like Anheuser-Busch and Miller/Coors, ESPN thinks their entire market is 22 year-old men who are obsessed with boobs and balls (the athletic kind, of course) — a market that likes Smith’s brand of humor. But what happens when your personal brand finds it way far beyond your loyal fans? How will it play in the mainstream press? What would your mother think?

Funny how? I like dry humor, dark humor and making fun of people as much as the next person, but I know when it’s gone too far. Even Dennis Miller who skewers people with a scary yet brilliant kind of smug satisfaction knows you must think about the consequences of your humor. When you laugh at a potentially tragic and personal event, like cancer or car accidents, isn’t that crossing a line? I think so, especially when you’re a role model of sorts and your behavior might influence others to have the same cavalier attitude toward life and limb.

Respond sincerely. No one believes Smith’s apology. No one thinks he’s changed his attitude. No one believes ESPN cares. I never had an opinion about ESPN; it was just another sports channel I watched. I was neutral. Now, I’ve lost respect.

Campaigns need many voices or big influence. Does the Twitter cycling community have any real voice or power? I fear it doesn’t unless mainstream journalists or celebrities take up the cause. Lance would have been perfect for this, but he’s compromised and has enough of his own problems. ESPN is betting that after a few days, the passion will die down, the pesky Twitter cyclists will go away and all will be forgotten. That’s a shame. I bet the scorn and distaste for cyclists won’t be forgotten by Smith’s 95,713 followers on Twitter. That’s scary.

Another lost opportunity. Wouldn’t it be something if an influencer did get ESPN’s attention, educated their staff and turned an ugly episode into a positive campaign about road safety or cycling as an affordable and fun way to get and stay fit? Paging Chris Horner!

Update: If you’d like to tell ESPN what you think about Michael Smith’s behavior, go to http://espn.go.com/espn/contact. Thanks!

tour de france espn michael smith twitter social media

Chris Horner in yellow (leader) at 2011 Tour of California (photo by Dave Strom)