In Age Of Tweets, NFL Learns 140 Characters Hurt While Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler sat on the sidelines of last weekend's championship game with an injured knee, his peers were blasting him in Twitter messages that essentially called him a quitter. The hurtful tweets have set off a debate about sportsmanship in the digital age.

In Age Of Tweets, NFL Learns 140 Characters Hurt

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It's been a tough week for one of Chicago's most prominent public figures - and we're not talking about Rahm Emanuel - Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler injured his knee during Sunday's NFC Championship game. He didn't play in the second half and the Bears lost to the Green Bay Packers.

Cutler then got blasted by his peers in a storm of Twitter messages that essentially said he quit on his team.

As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, that has set off a rollicking debate about the messages and how they were delivered.

TOM GOLDMAN: Athletes and Twitter: for the most part, says Jeff Pearlman, the marriage has been a success.

Mr. JEFF PEARLMAN (Author and Columnist, I almost think more than, like, really good tickets, what fans want is really good access.

GOLDMAN: Pearlman is an author and columnist for

Mr. PEARLMAN: Nobody cares if I'm eating Cheerios for breakfast. But for some reason, people really find it interesting that Shaq is eating Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast or LeBron is thinking this or he's going to that club, and it gives fans a very, very good taste of what an athlete's life is and what they're going through.

GOLDMAN: In return, it gives athletes a marketing tool. For the estimated 500 NFL players with Twitter accounts, it's a chance to reveal a personality often obscured by pads and helmets. But NFL agent Donald Yee doesn't endorse it with his guys.

Mr. DONALD YEE (Sports Agent): It's not really an issue for us because we counsel them on these kinds of things and try to get them to understand the import of their words.

GOLDMAN: Sunday, a bunch of NFL players, current and former, discovered just how their words, even in 140 characters or less, can wreak havoc.

Arizona defensive back Kerry Rhodes watched the Chicago-Green Bay game, as we did, with the same selective camera shots. He saw images of Jay Cutler with a hangdog look, out of the game and seemingly removed from his teammates, all while a third-string quarterback tried to rescue the Bears.

Rhodes tweeted: Come one, Cutler. You have to come back. This is the NFC Championship if you didn't know.

From the Seattle Seahawks' Raheem Brock: Cutler, you little sissy.

And from former star Deion Sanders: All the medicine in pro locker rooms, this dude comes out. Folks, I never question a player's injury, but I do question a player's heart.

The comments were startling for several reasons. NFL players know how hard the game is. Cutler is not the most popular guy, but his toughness is pretty widely accepted and, says Donald Yee, only Jay Cutler knew how his knee felt.

Mr. YEE: Historically, players wouldn't typically speculate, at least publicly, on how another player was really feeling.

GOLDMAN: Historically, athletes haven't said much of anything publicly -a reality immortalized in the 1998 baseball film "Bull Durham," where veteran Crash Davis tutors rookie Nuke LaLoosh on the art of sports cliche.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bull Durham")

Mr. KEVIN COSTNER (Actor): (as Crash Davis) We got to play them one day at a time.

Mr. TIM ROBBINS (Actor): (as Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh) Got to play -it's pretty boring, you know?

Mr. COSTNER: (as Crash Davis) Of course, it's boring. That's the point. Write it down.

GOLDMAN: But Sunday proved how, in the raw, unedited world of Twitter, athletes can be anything but boring, even if it means violating the code of never publicly criticizing a fellow athlete.

Is raw better than boring? Fans and reporters might say so, but even some of the players who tweeted Sunday apologized afterwards. True remorse or more marketing? We don't know.

But sportswriter Jeff Pearlman, who at 38 says he straddles the social media generation gap, says he knows how the NFLers could have avoided trouble in the first place.

Mr. PEARLMAN: I feel like the one thing that's missing in communication these days is the process of putting a letter in an envelope and putting a stamp on it, which gives you a little time to think about what you're saying before you say it.

GOLDMAN: But not much solace for Jay Cutler, who was asked about the tweets after Sunday's game. Sitting in front of his locker, Cutler replied, no comment on that. Then, according to one reporter's account, Cutler bit his lip as tears welled.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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