- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 10, 2010

PARIS (AP) - Admirable footballer that he is, Rio Ferdinand can also be a Grade-A pain at times. Think back to his elbowing of Hull’s Craig Fagan in January or, last month, how he infuriatingly poked his nose in while referee Mark Clattenburg and his assistant were in the middle of a touchline discussion about whether to allow Nani’s bizarre goal against Tottenham.

But, then again, it’s hard to stay disappointed for too long with a player who, when he is not guarding Manchester United’s back, says he can eat a dozen lamb chops, plus macaroni and cheese, broccoli and seven roast potatoes all in one sitting.

Or with a player who, despite his riches, is socially conscious and intelligent enough to ask questions about the corrosive effect that money can have on sport.

Or with a professional athlete who, despite his fame, remains sufficiently grounded to drive his kids _ his “lil men,” Ferdinand calls them _ to school himself before heading to United’s training ground.

How do we know this about Ferdinand, his thoughts and private moments? Because United’s veteran defender is the most interesting, engaging and thought-provoking footballer on Twitter.

Shame there aren’t more like him. Because, as Ferdinand’s tweets demonstrate, 140 characters or less can help negate the barriers that, sometimes for good reason, sometimes not, the privileged and guarded world of professional sports has erected against fans.

From Lance Armstrong who shielded himself with bodyguards at the Tour de France to tightlipped footballers who march past without a smile or sideways glance, some professional athletes have become too big for their boots. Perhaps that is why they are called “stars” _ because they are distant and seem to exist in a galaxy all their own.

The estrangement, too often, is managed and abetted by athletes’ agents, press officers and sponsors whose priority is image, not the interests of fans. Control freaks like Mark Whittle, an English Football Association media officer at this year’s World Cup. With the words “We don’t do religion,” he brusquely cut short an enlightening chat between reporters and Wayne Rooney about the England and Man United striker’s Catholic faith and why he wears rosary beads and a cross. Clearly, it is not just Rooney’s fault that he rarely says anything of much interest in public.

Which is why Twitter is a must for all pro athletes who give a damn about their fans. A few tweets now from Rooney _ if he actually had an account on the social network _ could help us better understand why he has gone off the rails, give his side of the story about the tabloid claims that he bedded prostitutes and soothe fans’ anger about his brinksmanship in recent contract negotiations with United.

At the World Cup, France’s footballers could have tweeted about why they acted like spoiled brats, and tweets from the England camp shedding light on the team’s dire performances would have been welcomed, too.

Sports officials who are leery about letting athletes tweet freely, who think it could undermine their authority and spill team secrets, are wrong. It makes sense that an athlete shouldn’t, for example, tweet from a dressing room that he will be playing with a bad ankle, because that inside information can help gamblers. And no one likes a loudmouth like Wang Dalei. China’s goalkeeper ranted, “It would be flattery to call you fans. You’re just a bunch of dogs” on sina weibo, a Twitter-like microblog in China, after his team’s 3-0 loss to Japan this week at the Asian Games.

Sports cannot return to that innocent time when footballers were said to have shared beers and thoughts with fans at the pub after games. There is too much money at stake. Too much tabloid scrutiny. Too much mutual suspicion for such loose talk and proximity now. As Ferdinand tweeted in September: “Did the players b4 have the question in their head saying “will this guy tweet/sell etc how many drinks iv had?”

It doesn’t matter that Ferdinand is no Shakespeare _ “My speling on twiter as know reflektion on my kapabilities as a speller!” he joked last month _ or that he plugs his shoe range. His stream of tweets is a window that shows pro sports could be more accessible if more athletes, like Ferdinand, made the effort and opened up.

In recent months, his 170,000-plus followers have learned, among other things, that Ferdinand sometimes lays awake after matches, thinking “How could i/we have done better, could i/we have stopped this+that.”

He argued that allowing referees to explain their on-pitch decisions after matches “would help clear the air” and said he “was never in doubt” that Rooney would re-sign for the club because the striker “is Man utd through and through there’s no way I could have seen him playing for another club.”

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