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Julianna Conley | Wednesday, January 12, 2022
A quick text fired off to four current or former student-athletes: “Do you think your relationship with social media has changed since playing college sports?” From each of them, an immediate response: “Yes.”
Online trolls are nothing new, with more than 30% of young adults experiencing cyberbullying before the age of 18. Angry sports fans aren’t revolutionary either, but in the last decade, social media has created an opportunity for virtual bullying that hits differently than the hate mail of years’ past: this venom can actually reach athletes.
After any sports game, fans are quick to jump on Twitter or comment on Instagram, criticizing athletes’ performances and even making personal attacks on their character or lifestyle. And while I find this disparaging type of discourse abhorrent when directed at any person — athlete or civilian, professional or amateur, old or young — I am especially appalled by the rancor spewed at students.
Student-athletes occupy a unique role in the realm of public figures. On one hand, they seem like celebrities. They grace our television screens, they offer interviews, and now, with the NCAA’s new policy regarding the monetization of athletes’ name, image and likeness, they may even sign brand deals. With fewer than 2% of NCAA athletes going on to play professional sports though, most student-athletes are first and foremost exactly what their name suggests: students.
These young athletes don’t have social media training. They don’t have PR teams managing their accounts. The mass majority aren’t making money and none are professionals. These athletes are kids going to school to get an education. Some may dream of going pro eventually, but for now, they’re still sleeping in dorms, eating in dining halls and making mistakes like all the other eighteen-year-olds living away from home for the first time.
Because social media is so all-encompassing in the digital age, for young athletes, avoiding online criticism borders on impossible.
Junior Notre Dame men’s lacrosse player Reilly Gray explains, “Our team does a good job of not looking too much into or replying to trolls, but in order to actually stop seeing stuff after a game, you’d proactively have to swear off all social media. Most guys on the team naturally follow lacrosse accounts, so stuff about players and the team is automatically in our feeds, and we’re often tagged too, even getting alerts.”
For other student-athletes, the hurtful words slung on social media can feel harder to shake off. While speaking as a guest on the Sixth Seat, Katie Cole, a former Notre Dame women’s basketball player who walked on to the team her sophomore year, explained she found it an especially hard adjustment being thrust into a spotlight where there is a critic waiting in every shadow.
Describing herself and the rest of her team as “just regular people, like the rest of college students, here to go to school,” Cole admitted. “One thing that gets to us is the fan comments online, when people think they can yell at us for something we did wrong. We’re humans. We make mistakes. It’s hard to see some of my teammates read some of those comments, because they’re hurtful. We have homework. We have practice. We’re not professionals. We’re not paid for what we do. It can be hard to keep a positive mindset, especially during the winter months, when we have two games a week. It’s a lot to keep up with.”
Cole explained that even her own personal account isn’t safe from trolls, describing how, “Even when I post there are people under the comments who will be like ‘You shouldn’t be posting now. You should be practicing.’ So I just kind of block them and delete them.”
Cole’s experience is not unusual. A 2019 study of Australian Facebook posts found that female athletes were subject to more than three times as much online negativity than were male athletes.
Current senior and Notre Dame women’s basketball player Katlyn Gilbert echoes this sentiment, commenting, “Surprisingly enough, I have not dealt with as many trolls as other athletes. The only encounters I’ve come across are men who constantly put down or degrade women sports. So yeah, that’s fun …”
By bullying student-athletes on social media, we create a culture where learning curves are forgone and perfection is demanded. But how many people can say they’ve never messed up something despite trying their best? How many people completed their first internship without making an error? Executed their first job flawlessly?
Last summer, an HBO Max intern accidentally sent a blank email with the subject line “Integration Test Email #1” to subscribers. Instead of firing the employee on the spot, HBO Max turned to Twitter, admitting that “Yes, it was the intern. And we’re helping them through it.” In turn, thousands across the social network shared stories of their own internship blunders under the hashtag #DearIntern. HBO was applauded for responding with compassion rather than punishment.
Why don’t we offer that same sense of compassion to our favorite student-athletes when they mess up? Why isn’t our first instinct, there, to recognize how lousy they must be feeling and use our platform to build them up? In what world, would the productive solution be to pile on more angst and cruelty? Athletes know when they make mistakes. They’re hearing plenty of feedback from paid, experienced coaches. I’m almost certain my observation that a wide receiver “should have caught that ball” will not be the critical point that makes him decide to practice running his routes. At best, my comment will never be seen by the err-er in question. At worst, I’ll make an already hurting person feel worse.
Part of the reason I find the trolling so repulsive is that it insinuates these young adults owe us something. It communicates a message that, beyond their coaches and families and loved ones, they also answer to a population of strangers, simply because those strangers follow the sports team of their school. In truth, though, these student-athletes didn’t make a deal with the devil, signing away their souls. They signed a letter of intent that said they could learn and grow and, yes, play sports at a college. Though many Twitter trolls may be shocked to hear, throwing a ball does not, in fact, waive away a person’s human dignity. Student-athletes are still people.
And therein lies the biggest reason the digital decorum must change: this culture of cruelty is no way to treat people. When typing at a profile rather than a person, it’s easy to believe that one comment won’t affect them or one Tweet won’t reach them. But on the other end of every “@” there’s a face behind the screen. And just because that face appears on a jumbotron doesn’t make it any less worthy of respect.
Julianna Conley is a senior studying sociology and pre-health studies with a minor Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Though she is forever loyal to Pasquerilla East B-team athletics, Julianna now lives off campus. She can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @JuliannaLConley on Twitter.
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