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Social media is a cruel, uneven playing field for fans and athletes

Social media is a mess, and we’ve all been witness recently

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Sep 29, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals first baseman Hunter Dozier (17) runs to first base after hitting a triple against the Cleveland Indians during the seventh inning at Kauffman Stadium.
Sep 29, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Royals first baseman Hunter Dozier (17) runs to first base after hitting a triple against the Cleveland Indians during the seventh inning at Kauffman Stadium.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2021 Kansas City Royals season, Hunter Dozier said something immensely interesting. It seems to have perhaps flown under the radar, thanks to a combination of the Royals no longer playing baseball, the MLB playoffs, and the NFL season. But it intrigued me nonetheless.

See, Dozier had an awful season by any measure. After signing an extension worth a guaranteed $25 million, Dozier injured his thumb before the season kicked off. Even afterwards, Dozier never quite got it together. Though there are plenty of stats to look at, it’s hard to ignore Wins Above Replacement, an all-encompassing statistic designed to provide overall value at a glance—and Dozier did not provide much at all. Per Fangraphs, Dozier was worth -0.2 WAR; per Baseball-Reference, Dozier was worth -2.6 WAR. In other words, Dozier was not simply unproductive, but an active liability for the team.

Dozier was not pleased with his performance. No one was. But Dozier didn’t just have that self-criticism to deal with. On his social media feeds, he had to deal with another worse kind of criticism: that of fans crossing the line, going out of their way to send scathing comments out of spite.

The cycle was vicious.

“The effort and the work ethic wasn’t a question,” [Dozier] said, “it just, it wasn’t clicking.”

As if his own self-doubt wasn’t enough, folks spammed his social media counts with hateful messages.

“It was every day,” he said. “Multiple people. I would try not to read it, but it would pop up on my page, and then you start thinking about things. It can get to a dark place.”

Social media is undeniably a double-edged sword. This is especially true for athletes, whose work performance is a matter of public discussion. Most people probably wouldn’t enjoy for their annual or quarterly performance review to be publicly available for everyone at their company, let alone having that performance review to be available to the entire world—and yet, that’s what sports players must face every day.

If you are in the public eye, at all, people will say extremely mean things to you on social media or elsewhere online. For instance, I write articles about the Royals and Royals-adjacent subjects online. I do not play for the Royals. I do not make any decisions about the Royals. I have a large platform but less than you might think; most of my articles have less than 10,000 pageviews. And yet people have carved out time in their day to send me nasty things directly to my personal email inbox. Here are a few, honest-to-goodness things people have sent me personally, word for word:

  • You’re a useless virtue-signaling fucktard
  • Your articles are shit
  • You are disgusting
  • what a stupid f****** article
  • You are an absolute idiot
  • You dumbass
  • You should do yourself a favor and find some new hobbies
  • You’re an idiot

I generally laugh it off because, well, what else can you do? It’s so silly, and I feel bad for these people that they are SO ANGRY they’ve just gotta email some dude on the internet and insult him. But this also happens very irregularly, maybe a couple times a year, and thus far my intelligence is the only thing that has been insulted. If people were threatening bodily harm, bringing my family into it, or telling me to kill myself, it would be a different story.

Why do people do this? Why do people send other human beings death threats when they would not do so in real life? Or, to be more specific, why does the internet empower so many people to be so extraordinarily toxic?

The answer is somewhat complicated but is well-known as “the online disinhibition effect.” In my opinion, it boils down to three things. First is anonymity: you can say things without anybody knowing who you are. Second—and perhaps most underrated among factors—is asynchronicity: when you say something to someone else online, you don’t have to see their immediate response and, in fact, you may choose never to see their response. Third is how we see other people online as not fully human, even if we know they’re a real person and are talking in more or less real time. Throw it all together and you get what we’ve got.

But how can cyberbullying be real if you can just turn off the screen? Well, if it were only that simple. At the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter asks if the vision he’s currently experiencing with Albus Dumbledore is all in his head or if it’s real. Dumbledore replies: “Of course this is all happening inside your head. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”

Bullying people online can have very real effects, especially if that bullying leads to doxxing—aka, the purposeful release of personal, confidential information. Even if it doesn’t, the real life effects almost don’t matter. Our perception is as or more important than reality itself, and it can be easily warped and crunched by the weight of people telling you that you are worthless. It’s in our heads, yes, but it’s also real.

Unfortunately, we’ve also seen very recently what it looks like when the athletes and those in power clap back against criticism. Recently, Kansas City Chiefs defenders Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark, and Anthony Hitchens have been on a tear when it comes to unleashing their own anger back at the people who criticize them. It has not looked pretty.

To be fair to Mathieu et al, they aren’t being actively cruel to people or releasing their information online or crossing a line when it comes to personal attacks. But their behavior is noteworthy because it represents an asymmetry between fan and player. Fans can do what they want, for good or ill—mostly ill, if we’re being honest—when it comes to social media. They aren’t governed by anything except the same platform guidelines that govern everybody on a social platform. Athletes, on the other hand, are shackled as representatives of their organization. Mathieu can feel how he wants, for instance, but as a Chiefs player there are consequences to berating the Chiefs fandom.

So what’s all the purpose to all this talk about social media? It comes down to two vital ideas: perspective and empathy. In general, fans derive far too much self worth from sports and take sports far too seriously. It’s important to keep that perspective as we decide what to type to the people who play with balls for a living. And for athletes, they need to keep perspective that fans are going to type dumb and mean stuff and that the athletes need to understand when and how to engage—and when to ignore.

But beyond that, empathy is important. Athletes are humans with real families, real hopes and dreams, and real feelings. They bleed red blood just like everyone else. And if you can’t or won’t accept that when you log onto Twitter after your team just suffered a tough loss? Stop “rooting” for your team and go do something else.