"Critics of athletes will argue that these people are paid millions of dollars and all the scrutiny that comes with that is a part of the deal."
This past week, three mostly unrelated football stories unfolded. On Saturday, during the most high profile Colorado vs Colorado State game ever, Colorado star Travis Hunter took what appeared to be a dirty hit by Colorado State defensive back Henry Blackburn. The result of this was an epic level of harassment towards Blackburn, including death threats. On Sunday, New York Jets star cornerback Sauce Gardner deleted his X (formerly Twitter) account after a brutal 30-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys which saw wide receiver CeeDee Lamb have a monster game at Gardner’s expense. Then on Tuesday, USC head coach Lincoln Riley suspended reporter Luca Evans over a profile of freshman running back Quinten Joyner. Gardner’s account was reactivated and Evans’ suspension has been lifted but all three of these events paint a tale about modern athletics.
It is undeniable that the way we cover athletes and teams has changed as has our access to them over the years. In the past, athletes and teams navigated the presence of beat writers and TV reporters. But as time has gone on, there has been a proliferation of content about athletes in the way of blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos. All of this content has been magnified by social media, which has given us unprecedented access to players that we could have never dreamed of a mere decade ago. But the result of this access has brought out a defensive nature in athletes and an echo chamber of negativity that has created a hostile relationship between players and those that watch them play.
The Town Hall Nightmare
At its core as a concept, social media can be a very useful tool. If you’re like me and have moved around a bit in your life, it is an essential tool to keep in touch with family and friends that live hundreds or thousands of miles away. It has also shown to be a great way to stay on top of current events with multiple journalists and news outlets using social media as a way to navigate the rapidly changing way that consumers get information from traditional telecasts to smartphone news delivery. But there is also a dark side of social media that has become more and more of an issue in the last 8 years.
In an age of burner accounts and bots, many people have become empowered by a sense of security and lack of consequences that their smartphones provide them. It is very easy for many to have an ambiguous name and picture and then proceed to harass people on the internet. Women have been subjected to this for many years now, with 61% of women reporting having been harassed online. This sense of freedom to say anything without consequences has also trickled to athletes after poor performances or certain comments are made.
Minnesota Vikings running back Alexander Mattison has the unenviable task of replacing a great running back in Dalvin Cook, who had 4 consecutive seasons of over 1,000 rushing yards and Pro Bowl selections. When the Vikings moved on from Cook this off-season, Mattison was handed the starting job. The Vikings have started the season 0-2, and Mattison has struggled averaging only 31 yards rushing per game. The result has been fans messaging him on Instagram with racist messages, with blatant use of the N-word and suggestions that Mattison should harm himself with a gun. Mattison has done what most athletes choose not to, and has brought attention to the harassment that athletes receive when they do not perform on the field.
The trouble is that athletes are human beings and simply want to be able to connect with people by using their social platforms. But because people have no sense of consequence when on the internet, the ugliest tendencies of the human race come out in full force. Sports fandom is often rabid, without sense or nuance, and filled with a sense of tribalism that is the embodiment of an “us versus them” mentality. This translates to wanting a player off their team if it is not translating to success. While Mattison has come forward and shed a light on the harassment, others simply take a break or delete their social media pages altogether.
Taking a Step Back
Kevin Durant is one of the most talented and gifted basketball players that we have ever seen. He is also a big fan of using social media, and is notorious for firing back at fans and pundits that criticize him on X (formerly Twitter). Not all players enjoy engaging with critics like Durant does, however. LeBron James has famously gone “zero dark thirty-23” from social media during playoff runs to maintain his focus. Point guard Russell Westbrook has often shared how the critiques that have come his and his family's way have had long-term mental health implications. Many athletes like Sauce Gardner did temporarily and Julius Randle of the New York Knicks has permanently, delete their X (formerly Twitter) accounts.
The surface level relatability of this is that no one wants to be mentioned in hundreds or sometimes thousands of posts that diminish your performance. On a human level it is easy to understand why an athlete would not want to subject themselves to repeated criticism from people that lack objectivity. The sad aspect of this is that an avenue that gives fans access to their favorite players is taken away. In many ways, this unfortunate paradox mirrors the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule).
The Pareto Principle states that 80% of consequences is a result of 20% of causes. In other words, the minority of offenders ruins things for the majority. When it comes to fans, it can be theorized that 20% (or even less) are the loudest on social media who alienate athletes, and thus ruining any potential for more friendly interactions for the rest of the fans. Because of the echo chamber nature of social media, these sorts of exchanges could cause athletes to view an entire fanbase with disdain.
The end result of all this trolling and misbehaving online means that a tool that could have been used for next-level connection to our favorite athletes has turned into another barrier and gap in relatability between the two entities. In an age where every comment is micro-analyzed and thought to have a deeper meaning, social media is an added element to navigating the media. A process that has become more complicated in the modern age of SEO and clickbait.
Taking Control of the Message
There is a concept in sales strategy called the Controversy Effect, which is predicated on using controversial language to capture the attention of the audience. This strategy can be directly correlated to the way that authors, content creators, and other members of the media have decided to cover athletes and teams. There is a saturation of sports content between traditional print media beat writers, podcasters, YouTube influencers, aspiring bloggers, TV reporters, and more. It is often difficult to have your voice cut through the noise of this saturation in coverage. The answer by many seems to be content with clickbait titles and the driving of narratives and discussions that will incite debates.
Sports fans seem to be intoxicated with debate content, evidenced by the success of ESPN’s First Take. This fascination for bombastic entertainers to discuss sports in addition to a large number of voices covering the same topics has led to many to become more and more audacious with their opinions to the point of degrading and belittling athletes to gain attention. To contrast this, many athletes have chosen to take control back and started to create their own content. A great example of this are the podcasts by NBA veterans Draymond Green and Paul George, where the players comment on life in the NBA with other players for a look behind the curtain.
These two occurrences and the fact that many coaches and teams are sheepish about answering questions from the media all stem from the fact that there is a lack of trust between players and reporters. Since players now feel that any comment that they make about the team will be misconstrued and portrayed as a misrepresentation of what they said, they will often choose not to speak to reporters much as Lincoln Riley was trying to do with Luca Evans. This mistrust has always existed in some capacity historically. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for instance, was always reluctant to speak to the media.
But in today’s current landscape, where podcasters and bloggers seemingly grow on trees and are trying to make a name for themselves, that notoriety often comes at the expense of an athlete's reputation. The only difference now is that they have platforms like podcasts and publications like The Players Tribune to be a part of the media ecosystem to formulate their own narratives. The issue with this resolution has become that we have a bit of a warped sense of reality and the truth. If a reporter is going to angle their story to generate more page views and an athlete is going to sugar coat that same story to make them come out looking clean, who can we as a content consuming public truly believe?
All of these elements have contributed to one thing: athletes becoming detached from the outside. Critics of athletes will argue that these people are paid millions of dollars and all the scrutiny that comes with that is a part of the deal. I would counteract that with the human element. Regardless of how much money is earned, the fact is that enduring harassment online and reading content that defames your character has a negative impact on a person. There does not seem to be a clear answer to bridge this gap, as people on social media will always chase virality and reporters are always chasing the story. Athletes controlling their content is a start but a band-aid at best. Ultimately, there is a human element to treating people and somewhere along the road we as a general sports watching public forgot about that. Hopefully, one day we can put aside our rabid fandom and find that empathy again.