NFL punters, those guys who kick the ball as far as possible when their teams fail to score, haven’t always been the most respected players on the field. Football is a physical game, and punters stay as far away from contact as possible — it’s even a penalty to run into them after they kick. But while this contrast has long made punters the butt of jokes, something revolutionary is happening in the NFL this year: these erstwhile whimps are finally are becoming cool.
Punters are dancing, celebrating with swagger, and winning over legions of fans in the NFL in 2016. And if you want to understand why, just look at their Twitter accounts. Not long ago, punters were seen and not heard (with some exceptions). They'd rarely take the media podium after the game, and would make headlines most often when they blew it. But these players have become masterful users of Twitter, finally giving themselves a voice to push back against the insults and celebrate their achievements. Combine that with Twitter’s video push, which has helped circulate punter highlights that TV broadcasts would never show, and the punter’s image is changing dramatically.
The two punters leading this charge are the Oakland Raiders’ Marquette King and Indianapolis Colts’ Pat McAfee. Both players shined in recent weeks thanks to seemingly good-natured scraps with opposing players on Twitter, both of which the punters dominated. King, for instance, called out an opposing player who got him penalized him on Sunday, tweeting a photo of the player pointing to a referee with the label “SNITCH.” That photo has been retweeted more than 96,000 times.
McAfee, for his part, put failed-quarterback-turned-successful-wide-receiver Terrell Pryor of the Cleveland Browns to shame last week. After Pryor poked fun of a swaggerlicious McAfee dance on Twitter, McAfee quote tweeted Pryor and wrote “Child please.. I've been doing this since you were still a quarterback.” The burn led Yahoo Sports to issue the warning: Do not mess with Pat McAfee on Twitter.
McAfee and King aren’t the only punters having fun on Twitter. Nearly every punter in the league has an account, and the majority seem to understand they’re having a moment. Johnny Hekker, who punts for the L.A. Rams, recently joked about his counterparts’ groovy moves, tweeting, “I cant wait to see all of the new dancing ratings for punters next year.” And New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead regularly tweets behind the scenes photos and video of NFL life.
“Twitter did make punters cool. That's true. And I love it,” Bleacher Report NFL columnist Mike Freeman told BuzzFeed News. “I like when players can express themselves and circumvent the league office which tries to strangle individuality.”
But Freeman also warned that, given the way some NFL fans deal with race, celebration of King may turn to criticism. “The backlash is coming,” he said. “Particularly for the punter in Oakland. When a black player celebrates, it's often viewed much differently by the more right wing elements of NFL fandom. To some, [a] white punter in Indy celebrating is spirited. Black punter celebrating is showboat. I hope they all keep shaking their ass.”
And by all indications, shake their asses they will. On Monday night, McAfee kept up the tradition, artfully placing a punt at the hapless New York Jets’ two yard line, 98 yards away from the end zone. McAfee’s celebration, video of which circulated widely on Twitter, left the television broadcasters dumbfounded. After a few of McAfee’s golf waves and arm thrusts towards his chest, one announcer could barely muster, “I tell you what, these punters…”
Tonight, it will be King’s turn, as the Raiders play the Kansas City Chiefs in a prime time game that will be broadcast nationally on both television and, yes, on Twitter.