Gilbert Arenas: Suspended From Washington Wizards After Twittering?

Pro athletes using Twitter.ABC News Photo Illustration
Pro athletes using Twitter.

Did the Twitter ramblings of Washington Wizards' star point guard Gilbert Arenas cause him to be suspended indefinitely by the NBA?

It's certainly starting to look that way and now the hoop star may regret using the social networking tool to speak his mind about the recent off-court incident that has him in hot water.

Arenas is currently being investigated after he admitted Monday to bringing hand guns into the team locker room in Washington, D.C., last month, although he continues to deny reports he and another teammate brandished guns at each other during a locker room argument about gambling debts.

VIDEO: Gilbert Arenas Suspended in Gun EpisodePlay

In a statement Wednesday announcing Arenas' suspension, NBA Commissioner David Stern said that while he was inclined to let the criminal investigation into the incident go forward before taking action, it was clear to him that Arenas' behavior made him "not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game."

Stern cited "ongoing conduct" as the reason for the punishment. A league source told ABC News that several things certainly factored into the commissioner's decision: Arenas' prolific tweeting about the incident, his statements to the media and a photo of the point guard waving his index fingers like pistols before a game in Philadelphia Tuesday night.

On Monday, Arenas tweeted an apology for the offensive photo. But the stream of Twitter messages, ramblings and rants may have shined a self-inflicted spotlight on the gifted player that was too much for Stern to ignore. Arenas has been known for his erratic behavior over the years.

After the suspension was announced, Arenas sent an apology, not via a tweet, but through an old school statement released by his lawyer. "I feel very badly that my actions have caused the NBA to suspend me, but I understand why the league took this action," Arenas said. "I put the NBA in a negative light and let down my teammates and our fans. I am very sorry for doing that."

Arenas also said he had called Stern to apologize. "While I never intended any harm or disrespect to the NBA or anyone else, my gun possession at the Verizon Center and my attempts at humor showed terrible judgment," he said. "I take full responsibility for my conduct."

Will it be too little too late? Over the last several days, Arenas repeatedly used his Twitter account to explain the incident and defend himself against what he said were false reports.

"i wake up this morning and seen i was the new JOHN WAYNE..lmao media is too funny," Arenas tweeted Jan. 1 after the story broke.

Arenas even went after the reporter who wrote the original story about the gun brandishing incident in the New York Post.

"As for the reporter who broke the story – NY post should eject Peter V FROM WRITNG EVERY AGAIN," Arenas said of sportswriter Peter Vecsey.

Arenas called the first reports of the incident "intriguing" but insisted that reports of a gun-waving argument about gambling debts were false.

"for P Vecsey-ur articles r very entertaining and exciting..its like AND 1 basketball..great to watch but just not the real thing," the Wizards' star tweeted Jan. 3, comparing the reporter's work to street basketball.

The Wizards would not comment to ABC News on whether team management had asked Arenas to stay off of Twitter or what it thinks about his candid online presence.

But the team's management did release a statement Wednesday after Stern issued the suspension, saying they "fully endorse the decision" and Arenas' "recent behavior and statements…are unacceptable."

Twitter Appeal Stems From Unprocessed, Immediate Information

More and more athletes, politicians, celebrities and everyday Joes are employing the social networking site as a means to engage with fans, self-promote and stand on a virtual soapbox and shout their opinions. Twitter has over 58 million monthly users.

Twitter and other Web sites are a blessing and a curse, says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

"They have a new way to engage the public, their fans, and new ways to show a playful side of themselves…a way for them to bond even more deeply with their fans," he said. But "things that might seem private or more intimate, playful or spontaneous, appealing in one context, all of a sudden when they're tweeted out to a wide audience, could take on a different context."

Rainie said that the rules of the road on Twitter and other online sites are still being determined. "How much do I disclose? What's the tone of voice I want to have? How forthcoming do I want to be?"

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said that the ease and convenience of Twitter means that users often don't think through what they are posting online.

"That is one of the things that make this so appealing – it is so unprocessed. We're used to seeing before that we would only encounter celebrities or political leaders through press conferences, written statements, reports from journalists," Thompson said. "Twitter gets the sense that you are really hearing what they are thinking at any given time."

But, Thompson cautioned, that can be really dangerous for the person tweeting, "because people often say things off the cuff that are stupid and wrong and that can potentially get them in trouble."

One recent example of that is former Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, who reportedly tweeted disparaging comments about his coach in a series of online messages that also included a gay slur. Johnson was suspended for two weeks and then ultimately cut by the Chiefs, who said it was in the best interest of the team to move forward.

One former professional sports team communications official said that sites like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace are "a professional publicist's nightmare – but a fan's dream come true."

"Don't publish anything on the Internet that you wouldn't want on a highway overpass," he said.

But not every athlete or celebrity embarrass their bosses with their online networking.

Cleveland Cavaliers center Shaquille O'Neal is the most popular athlete on Twitter, with more than 2.3 million followers. O'Neal uses the site as a way to engage with fans, frequently telling jokes, talking about sports and his games and getting in a little trash talk, too.

Chad Ochocinco of the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals may be one of the more engaging athletes on Twitter (his ID: OGOchOCinco).

Ochocinco, well-known for his on-the-field antics that frequently land him fines from the league, has over 600,000 on Twitter. He actively engages his diehards, soliciting advice on where to eat, buying some lucky fans tickets to Bengals games and keeping them up to date on his passion for video games and McDonald's.

After one game this season, Ochocinco told his Twitter followers that he was going to a particular restaurant and encouraged them to meet him there. Sure enough, several dozen showed up and the Bengals wide receiver bought appetizers and drinks.

Is It Too Late for Professional Sports Leagues to Set Guidelines for Online Social Networks?

Professional sports leagues are trying to get a handle on their athletes as a way to control their message and protect their brand.

In September 2009, the NBA instituted new rules for its athletes who use these sites.

Under the new social media policy, athletes cannot tweet during game time, which includes the 45 minutes before a game starts, half-time and the period after a game that is traditionally used for press conferences and media interviews. Violators can be fined by the league and face additional sanctions by their team. The NFL has similar restrictions on the time periods when players may not use social media.

The regulations may stem from an incident last spring when Milwaukee Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva got into hot water for Tweeting during halftime of a game against the Boston Celtics.

Villanueva said on Twitter from the locker room that his coach "wants more toughness. I gotta step up."

Turns out his coach also wanted focus.

Head Coach Scott Skiles reamed out Villanueva for using Twitter during the game. Skiles said at the time that he didn't want to blow the incident out of proportion but "anything that gives the impression that we're not serious and focused at all times is not the correct way we want to go about our business."

But what may cause headaches for coaches and team management can be a dream for fans.

"It's very entertaining, it's great for fans of these guys," said Will Leitch, a contributing editor at New York magazine and founder of the sports Web site, "It's always best to think before you do something but Twitter makes it so easy, so you don't."

The direct access to original thoughts from athletes feeds into the "voyeur personality" that so many American have, said a former communications official for a professional sports team.

"It's the whole TMZ, 'celebrities are just like me,' -- people want to know what people are doing, and while it's normally boring mundane stuff [posted online], if you are a fan, you know what that athlete is up to," the communications official said.

Social networking sites allow athletes and celebrities to bypass the filter of the media – why answer questions at a press conference when you can spread your message on your own online?

But by taking public relations and image into your own hands, these athletes lose their favorite target of criticism – the sports media.

"It is you speaking, it's your words, your quotations," said a former professional sports communications official. "You can't say you are misquoted on your Twitter page."

Leitch said that Arenas' online presence will ultimately be good for his public image.

"I think what we like about Gilbert Arenas, what's appealing about him, definitely comes across in what he does on Twitter, but it certainly isn't helping his case with the NBA or the cops," he said.

ABC News' Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.