by Matt George
Ah sports. One of life’s greatest treasures. An unmatched outlet for drama, storytelling, heroism, pain, elation and satisfaction. Millions of people around the world turn to sports for more than just entertainment value. To many, sports association is part of their identity, community, social life, and even mental health. While passion in sports, both from athletes and fans, is part of what makes them so great, it comes with an unfortunate dark and abusive side, particularly when paired with social media.
Sports are a healthy means of release for the common man, be it emotional or physical. Many turn to live games/events as a safe and acceptable place to blow off steam, yell, dance, scream, and have a good time. It can be extremely therapeutic. However, with so many people associating the teams they support with their own self-worth or identity, things can get ugly when the losses pile up.
But, no matter the situation, event, play or result, being a fan or having an emotional attachment to a team or player in no way justifies irresponsible criticism, hatred, or any kind of physical/emotional abuse.
Anonymous Death Threats and Abuse
Social media networks like Twitter or Instagram have allowed for fan interaction with professional athletes that has never existed before. It also provides a place for millions to voice their own opinions or feelings. While, for the most part, both can be a harmless and positive experience for the everyday sports enthusiast, there is a clear line that separates what’s acceptable from what is too far. Unfortunately that line is being crossed more and more today.
Take for instance Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey, who missed a game-winning field goal in the NFL Playoffs against the Eagles last weekend. While it’s not unfair for fans to expect Parkey to make the kick, and therefore be frustrated or even heartbroken when he missed it, that in no way makes abusive fan response acceptable. It’s one thing to boo a player off the field, but another entirely to anonymously threaten or abuse them online, as far too many have done.
Here is a public tweet from someone who calls themselves a fan of the Bears organization, and therefore a fan of Parkey.
Again, there is very fine line between understandable frustration in the moment and the unfiltered venom seen above. And it’s definitely not the first time, nor the last, that fans have crossed it. Remember when San Francisco 49ers returner Kyle Williams fumbled away a punt that cost his team a chance at the Super Bowl in 2012? I know Williams remembers, along with the thousands of tweets and hate-messages he received like this:
Williams received thousands of threats from fans promising physical harm and even death for a costly mistake in a child’s game. Abuse such as this was (thankfully) met with a lot of disgust from other fans, the media, and the NFL itself. There is never any situation in professional sports where this kind of response is acceptable. Many wanted those who sent such messages prosecuted, and rightfully so. There is nothing more cowardly than making threats from behind the safety of a keyboard or phone. And while they may not respond, the athletes that receive such treatment do see it and it does have an effect on them, one way or another.
A Sacramento Perspective
Sadly no sports community, team, or group is without some level of what I call “Abusive Fan Culture”. Even in Sacramento, a one-sport community that loves the Kings, so much so that they fought a seemingly winless battle to keep the franchise from leaving, there is an extremely loud and equally out of line minority.
After over a decade of being outside of playoff contention, filled with ups and downs that have sparked more than enough fan frustration, a boiling point was reached this summer. With the second overall pick in the NBA Draft, tensions were high among Sacramento fans, equally hopeful and terrified about the huge opportunity for a franchise turnaround. With General Manager Vlade Divac as the clear decision maker for the franchise, there was no stopping fans from sharing their doubts and opinions towards each of his decisions. Things really took a turn when the Kings selected Marvin Bagley over international star-prospect Luka Doncic, prompting a premature and immature response from many on social media.
Here’s the epitome of a fan temper tantrum directed at a GM and organization for selecting a player that they didn’t want. As if the Kings clearly didn’t do their homework, Bagley was a complete failure, and Doncic was a guaranteed superstar. Now, halfway into the 2018-2019 NBA season, while Doncic is having a fantastic rookie year, the Kings are 20-21, far exceeding expectations, and in a tight race for a playoff spot. Sacramento also has a better record, and a win, over Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks.
So that vocal minority of fans has backed off on Vlade a bit, trying to hide their premature reactions and unwarranted anger behind a pathetic “I’m glad he proved me wrong” excuse. But has the venom disappeared altogether? Of course not. It’s just transferred to two different players, and head coach Dave Joerger, over the recent months.
Player-focused fan anger began with Justin Jackson. While struggling to be productive consistently is fair grounds for frustration and criticism, it didn’t take long for some to take things too far.
Since then Jackson has contributed with a career-high 28 point night against the Golden State Warriors and much more consistent play off on the bench. Then fan venom transitioned to Willie Cauley-Stein, the Kings’ athletic center who has struggled to block shots, rebound, or give maximum effort despite it being a contract year. All valid criticisms, but not worthy of this response:
And then there’s Coach Joerger, who despite turning his team around in one summer, earning national praise and recognition around the league, is receiving nonsense like this after seemingly every game.
“Fans will be fans” isn’t a get-out-of-jail free card for verbal abuse and threats on social media. While it’s impossible for players, leagues, and social media companies to eradicate the issue, fellow fans can and should hold their peers responsible for unacceptable behavior.
Sports are truly one of the best things about humanity. The fact that we allow so many to infect it with so much venom, to the point that it has become common and almost accepted in sports culture, is disgusting. It’s time for fans to be held to a higher standard. Feel free to criticize, voice your frustrations, and bond with your fellow fan through the good times and the bad, but do so in a manner that you can be proud of the following day/week/month/year.
Fans deserve to be respected and treated fairly by athletes and organizations alike. But respect is a two-way street. Based on your social media accounts, do you truly deserve it?