Part of what makes Kyler Murray a great footballer is that no one knows what he’s going to do at any given time. He could throw an 80-yard pass. He could pull off a 50-yard run. But when the cardinals QB was frustrated with his contract this offseason, he made one of the most predictable moves in the modern NFL: he removed all references to his team from his social media accounts. (Deebo Samuel did the same with the 49ers this spring, as others have before him.)
Murray’s brief career has now come full circle (socially). When Arizona drafted him to replace Josh Rosen, Rosen also stopped following the team.
If the last decade has taught us anything about professional sports, it’s that no matter the size of your yacht, you’re going to sit on deck, stare at your phone, and talk about people you can’t stand anymore. In 2017, PSG stars Neymar and Edinson Cavani were supposedly arguing over who would take penalties when Neymar unfollowed Cavani on Instagram. One of the first signs that Antonio Brown’s tenure in the Raiders was doomed was when he unfollowed quarterback Derek Carr on Instagram. On Dwight Howard’s path from the Lakers to the Rockets in 2013, Kobe Bryant unfollowed him on Twitter.
Unsubscribing has become such a common gesture that athletes even joke about it. When Seahawks free safety Quandre Diggs was kicked out of a game last September, teammate Jamal Adams told reporters, “If he gets kicked out again, I’m going to delete his number and unfollow him on Instagram and Twitter. … If he lets us dry out there again, we’re going to be in trouble.
Astute fans and journalists have learned that to know where an athlete’s heart is, you have to look at what their thumbs are doing. Sometimes we overreact; in 2016, LeBron James dropped out of the Cavaliers, suggesting he would leave the team. Which he did, but not for two years. But more often than not, social media is where athletes call their shots. Last summer, Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard wrote in an Instagram Story: “They won’t realize how important a role you play…until you’re there to play it without more.” Two weeks later, he asked for a trade.
Some messages are just screeds or fits of annoyance. When an athlete does not follow their team, however, the intentions are unspoken but almost always clear.
The no-follow tactic as a negotiation is – for now, at least – almost exclusively the domain of NFL players, because they are the ones who need it. Professional football contracts are rarely fully guaranteed, and players perpetually worry about career-ending or career-limiting injuries. Compared to most sports, NFL contracts are much more likely to be renegotiated before they expire.
For decades, an NFL star who wanted a new contract held firm during training camp. The idea was that, eventually, his team would miss him enough to sign a deal. What worked for Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith in 1993 worked for one of his successors, Ezekiel Elliott, in 2019.
But the current collective bargaining agreement, signed in 2020, includes financial penalties so severe for the missing side that veterans are no longer an attractive option. (Rookie holdouts – before a player has signed with a team – fall into a different category.) Today’s players need other ways to pressure teams.
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The social media scrub is passive-aggressive but targeted. A player who complains about his contract can look greedy. But a player removing all connection to his franchise from his social media looks crazy. Yes, he’s often angry because he wants to be paid more, but the message to the public is that the team has damaged their relationship with a star – and that looks bad for the team.
As one agent explained to Sports Illustrated, cleaning up social media can have subtle benefits. During negotiations, a team can sometimes perceive that the agent is taking a harder line than his client would like and feel a weakness. A social media cleanup shows the player and agent are in sync.
There is a potential downside, of course. The player might look petty. Fans could turn against him. But compared to, say, holding a press conference to demand a new contract, a social media cleanup is relatively low risk.
It also gives the player plausible deniability. Even though Murray cleaned up his accounts before the Cardinals, apparently letting concerns about his maturity slip away at ESPN and the NFL Network, and shortly before his agent, Erik Burkhardt, blasted the Cardinals by demanding a new contract, Murray claimed at a charity event that her scrub “had nothing to do with the Cardinals”.
Well, someone will believe it. But if Murray was angry with the Cardinals, as most assume, the way he expressed his anger is relatable.
Over the first five years of his career, Murray is expected to earn over $65 million at Arizona. In the NFL market, his services are worth more than that. Most of us can’t understand someone making $65 million and feeling underpaid, but we box relate to hurt feelings and wanting some distance.
The obvious comparison is at the end of an intimate relationship: “When you break up with an ex-boyfriend or an ex-girlfriend, you delete, you react,” says Ishveen Jolly, founder and CEO of OpenSponsorship, which combines from athletes to sponsors who want to capitalize on athletes’ social media followings. When Aaron Rodgers and Danica Patrick broke up, Patrick unfollowed him on Instagram. Jennifer Lopez abandoned Alex Rodriguez after leaving him.
But the best comparison is professional. As Jolly says, “He’s employed by a company. He is a little unhappy with them. If a member of our team wasn’t happy with me, I doubt they would be. [airing all their grievances] on Linkedin.”
Boring your best employees is bad business, which is why the best-run NFL franchises don’t usually end up dealing with these social media outbursts. When the Chiefs came to an impasse with Tyreek Hill, they traded him before it got ugly online. When Aaron Donald wanted a new contract with the Rams, he spoke publicly about his retirement but never walked away from the team. In a way, it’s surprising that Donald didn’t use social media as leverage. After all, he had just signed a marketing deal with Kanye West’s company, Donda Sports. Last fall, as things got messy in their relationship, Kanye unfollowed his ex, Kim Kardashian, on Instagram. Then he followed her. Then, after she started dating Pete Davidson, Ye unsubscribed her again.
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