The rabbit hole opened while Jesse Munoz was driving to church. During the morning of Nov. 24, Munoz saw a tweet from one of the Seahawks he follows, receiver Doug Baldwin.
In the wake of cornerback Walter Thurmond’s four-game suspension, Baldwin received tweets criticizing Thurmond. He decided to respond.
“He who is without sin shall cast the first stone…apparently there are no stones left,” Baldwin tweeted. “Mistakes happen, y’all need to get over yourselves.”
Munoz, a 32-year-old living in Yakima, took exception. He thinks fans have the right to be frustrated and disappointed. So he replied.
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The two went back and forth — the Seahawks’ leading receiver and a graphic designer — before calling it quits.
The exchange, though, raised a larger question: Why would a professional athlete argue with anonymous fans on the Internet?
BALDWIN’S DEBATE WITH MUNOZ is not an anomaly. He consciously uses those moments to build his personal brand, a concept first mentioned in a 1997 magazine article titled “The Brand Called You” by Tom Peters.
“We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc.,” Peters wrote. “To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”
The idea caught fire the past 16 years, especially with social media. Now, everyone has a platform for promotion.
Baldwin outlined his desired brand after meeting with a sports marketing company last season. He wants to share his opinions, even when the Seahawks prefer he didn’t. He also wants to be an analyst some day.
“Growing up, all you hear about are athletes who are dumb jocks and unintelligent trouble makers who are just athletically gifted,” he said. “I want to change that.”
Safety Earl Thomas used a lighthearted two-minute video for Sports Illustrated to contrast his intense persona in the public eye.
“Just to let people in — just a little bit — to get to know me,” he said.
Baldwin and Thomas are architects of their own brand.
THOMAS WAS NERVOUS. Normally supremely confident, he had agreed to shoot a video with Sports Illustrated in which he would approach strangers at Pike Place Market and jokingly offer “free safety advice.”
Thomas’ confidence stems from his preparation. He’s able to call out plays before they happen because he watches so much film. But there was no preparation for the unscripted banter in the video.
When he saw a woman eating a banana, for example, Thomas warned, “Careful with that banana peel. Somebody might slip.”
“I just try to make myself complete,” he said later. “I’m kind of a quiet guy, but I try to challenge myself in any way possible. That was a big challenge for me.”
Thomas keeps personal goals on his phone from more than 200 days ago. He spends his off days at the team facility and once said, “Football is my first love. It always will be until I get married. That’s why I don’t really commit myself all the way to stuff like that.”
Said his agent, David Dunn: “He didn’t want to be the high pick in the draft that was a disappointment. His first couple years, he let his desire to be the best overtake all other aspects of his life. Now he’s been in the league a few years, he’s played well, and he’s realized there’s more to it than that intense focus all the time.”
Sports Illustrated approached Thomas about the video earlier this season. He’s been guarded with the media but saw an opportunity to open up.
“I always wanted (Thomas) to do stuff like this,” Dunn said, “but he didn’t really know how to mix that with football. Now he’s realizing that these are the fans that have supported him, and he plans on being there for the rest of his career. So he wants to open up to them.
“He shared that with me, and then we figured out a way to slowly do it.”
BALDWIN MEETS with a sports marketing agency each week to go over his social media metrics.
In a way, it’s like analyzing stats after a game: What generated the most responses? What didn’t people like? How many followers did he gain? Did posts with pictures get better reactions?
The process started when Baldwin first met with the agency late last season and established his goals.
Baldwin, who graduated from Stanford, wants to be a football analyst when he’s done playing. It’s why, in his “Fresh Files” videos on YouTube, he is talking in front of the camera.
On Twitter, he views his willingness to be opinionated and engaging as a small part of his résumé.
“I want people to feel like they have the ability to go to athletes and actually have intelligent conversation,” Baldwin said. “I want to be an example that there can be a connection between professional athletes and fans, and it can be cordial and intellectual and people actually get something out of it.”
Which is why he jumped into the discussion about Thurmond’s suspension.
Baldwin wanted to defend his teammate from what he perceived to be personal attacks, but he also saw an opportunity to enhance his brand.
The Seahawks media relations staff has talked to Baldwin about not engaging in arguments, and the sports-marketing company he works with has tried to make him less emotional on Twitter.
“But I’m not going to just hush because the Seahawks tell me to,” Baldwin said. “I don’t respond to a lot of stuff, but there’s stuff where I say, ‘OK, I can use this to build my brand positively.’ It might get heated every once in a while, but I think it adds to the character, the flavor, of the brand.”
That’s not always the case. Munoz, for example, wishes he hadn’t argued with Baldwin.
“Doug Baldwin is awesome, right? Super underrated, makes the craziest catches,” Munoz said. “But now it’s hard to separate that from me arguing with him. It shades him a little differently.”
THOMAS’ BRAND HAS BEEN defined almost exclusively by his play, but he’d done little to market himself outside of the game.
He hadn’t, as he put it, let anyone in.
After the Seahawks lost in the playoffs last year, he returned home to Orange, Texas — what he fondly calls “the country” — and decompressed.
“When I’m with my family, I’m laid back and relaxed,” Thomas said. “But I kind of can’t be that way in my role with the Seahawks. I have so many guys who look up to me. I have two totally different personalities. When I’m here, this is football. This is my world. This is my life. I take it very seriously.”
But he reached a conclusion: If he wanted to market himself, if he wanted to have a voice in the Seattle community, he couldn’t just be the hyper-focused football player.
“I went back and evaluated myself and was like, ‘Man, E, you have to let somebody in. This is not how you grew up. People aren’t out to get you,’ ” Thomas said. “And then when you get big deals and breakthroughs, when you show the world who you are, the flood gates can open.”
Thomas’ breakthrough came this summer when he became the rare defensive back to sign with Nike’s Jordan Brand. He’s also launching a foundation, the Earl Thomas Guardian Angel Foundation, next year to help the less fortunate.
“He understands that it’s going to be hard for him to make an impact the way he wants to outside of football if he’s so quiet and closed off to everybody,” Dunn said. “That’s his driving force.”
THE IRONY OF Thurmond receiving negative tweets is that Twitter had previously helped him gain popularity.
Thurmond decided to wear a new outfit to each game. One outfit, as a teammate described it, looked like “a black Abraham Lincoln.” Another had a Western flair. He tweeted pictures of those outfits every game, to noticeable fanfare.
“The thing that keeps you close to fans,” said Chad Brown, the former Seahawks linebacker, “is also the thing that keeps fans close to you.”
Baldwin is aware of the traps. He knows that he has far more to lose than the people he’s engaging.
But he sees too many positives to stop.
The typhoon that rocked the Philippines in November hit close to home for Baldwin. He has numerous relatives living in the country, including one family member who lost a home.
He recently tweeted that he would be at Momma’s Teriyaki in Renton collecting canned food. He advertised the event only through Twitter, but several hundred people showed up.
“It’s a testament,” Baldwin said, “to the support I have for my brand that people were willing to do that.”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org