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Is social media ruining sports?

Political discussion on social media is notoriously nasty and largely disingenuous. Is the same true of sports fandom?

Photo Illustration by Michelle Budge

SALT LAKE CITY — Sean Clifford didn’t expect death threats. Everybody has a bad day.

Perhaps he should have, just because they’ve become so common. Still, even after Penn State’s 21-year-old quarterback threw three interceptions and his until-then undefeated Nittany Lions fell to undefeated Minnesota in November, he wasn’t ready to read that somebody wanted him dead.

“It gets a little crazy,” he told ESPN. So crazy he temporarily shut down his Twitter and Instagram accounts. “I was kind of, I guess, sick and tired of getting death threats and some pretty explicit and pretty tough-to-read messages.”

Normal fandom is often bliss. A symbiosis that rewards athletes with money and adoration while making fans — adults and kids alike — feel like they’re part of something important. Their teams, through their loyalty, become an extension of themselves.

And that’s beautiful. Or at least it can be. It makes people feel less alone by uniting communities, giving them a common symbol to rally around and common enemies to fight. Kids, once upon a time, might send letters or cards to their favorite players, hoping they’d send something back. And when they did, well, the sun just shined a little brighter, felt a little warmer, imbued that kid with a healthy glow.

Toxicity has always been a part of sports fandom, too. As immortalized in the 1992 “Seinfeld” episode “The Boyfriend” — when after attending a New York Mets game, series antagonist Newman yells, “Nice game, pretty boy!” at Mets star Keith Hernandez — anger, frustration and venting are part of fandom’s appeal. But at one time, there were boundaries. Newman’s comment might be the only negative thing Hernandez heard after that game. Nowadays, Newman could spend day and night harassing Hernandez behind a keyboard, along with thousands of others. Imagine what Bill Buckner’s life might have been like had Twitter been around in 1986.

Social media has fueled the removal of boundaries, which can be good and bad. Kids no longer need to mail a letter and hope for a response — they can tweet and, potentially, get a response within minutes. Which sounds good. Much like social media sounded good for politics — at first. It allowed people to organize in new ways, interact with leaders like never before and placed the potential to engage in meaningful civic dialogue at everyone’s fingertips. Then came disinformation, manipulation and increased polarization and extremism.

Social media’s effect on sports, according to Indiana University professor of psychological and brain sciences Edward Hirt, can be likened to an amplifier — a reflection of allegiances and tribal mentalities. The question is whether the reflection is representative, as with a regular mirror, or whether social media acts as a trick mirror, perverting and distorting preexisting tendencies.

Fandom becomes toxic

Fandom, of course, isn’t limited to sports. From sci-fi to music to movies, it transcends genres, mediums and disciplines. And in September, the New Yorker’s Michael Schulman wondered whether fandom’s discourse was becoming as toxic as political discourse. His answer was complicated. The story’s title — “Superfans: A Love Letter” — juxtaposed with its opening anecdote about fans of rapper Nicki Minaj launching a coordinated harassment campaign against a critic reflects the ambiguity.

Schulman was blunt about this much: Superfans have made a pastime of digitized tar-and-feathering. “... An attack against a celebrity or a beloved character is an attack against the fans,” he wrote, “and it is their duty to retaliate.” Social media provides a sharp tool for doing so.

The tool is perhaps most frequently wielded against kickers who miss important field goals, like Alabama’s Cade Foster. In 2013, he missed three field goals when No. 1 Alabama faced archrival Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Coach Nick Saban pulled him in favor of a freshman kicker with the game tied, with one second left, for a 57-yard kick. The attempt fell short, into the arms of Auburn defensive back Chris Davis, who returned it 109 yards for the game-winning touchdown — the now-legendary “kick six.”

Jimmy Sanderson, assistant professor of sport management at Texas Tech, completed a study of Foster’s Twitter mentions after the game. The 22-year-old was mentioned about 12,000 times in 24 hours, including death threats and plans to murder his family.

Former Utes kicker Ryan Kaneshiro, who in 1998 missed a game-winning 32-yard field goal to give the Cougars the win, told the Deseret News in 2019 that he was glad social media wasn’t around back then. All he heard at the time was positivity; he doubts that would’ve been the case with Twitter.

“I probably would’ve had a lot of trolls,” he said. “There probably would’ve been a lot of negativity.”

Like with politics, social media does bring advantages to the athlete-fan dynamic. Sanderson is one of those kids who sent baseball cards to his favorite players hoping they’d sign. Aside from a chance encounter, he explained, that was his only opportunity to interact with them. As opposed to now, when athletes regularly respond to fans on social media. Like in November, when Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert learned about 17-year-old bullying victim Luc Holdaway and reached out.

“It’s hard to fathom,” Sanderson said, “what it was like before.”

But, as illustrated by a blog post on Calm Before The Storm — a fan blog for the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes — fandom on social media can sour quickly. The author described how when he first joined Twitter, he found an enthusiastic community of “Canes” supporters who deepened his devotion to the team. “... It was amazing,” he recalled. “I loved what we call ‘Canes Twitter.’ It was a great community of people who shared a love and passion for the Hurricanes.”

He soon started writing for a blog, which he loved — at first. But the Hurricanes generally struggle, and he became uncomfortable with the pessimism that he felt permeated the site. Eventually, he — along with the rest of the blog’s writers — left to share their thoughts on the Hurricanes in a more optimistic forum. They still had to deal with daily gripes on Twitter.

“By this point,” he observed, “my love for the Hurricanes and my love for interacting with a once wonderful group of people on Canes Twitter had become more of a hassle than anything. Eventually, I temporarily deleted my Twitter account because I couldn’t take it anymore.”

But it went beyond any one person. Negativity permeated every corner, unavoidable to anyone thoroughly engaged with the fanbase. Psychology helps explain why this can be the case across fandoms, and certainly in politics, where Bernie Sanders-supporting “Bernie Bros” and President Donald Trump’s “MAGA Army,” among many others, sustain themselves online not only by supporting their candidates, but by lashing out at anyone who questions or challenges them.

Is social media toxic?

It starts, per Yale psychologist Molly Crockett, with understanding the brain’s “reward circuitry.” When outrage — especially moral outrage — is rewarded, it floods the brain with dopamine and reinforces the behavior. Since social media outrage catching on isn’t predictable — that is, you never know which tweet is going to blow up — it creates a varied reinforcement pattern, which can be incredibly potent since a reward isn’t guaranteed, forcing users, conscious or not, to try new, often more extreme strategies in search of their reward.

Social media algorithms, meanwhile, prioritize outrage because the more outrageous the content, the more likely it is to keep users engaged. This creates a system that’s more performative than interactive, according to the Huffington Post. That is, users are reinforced by engagement and validation, rather than by participating in thoughtful discussion. Social media’s optional anonymity and its buffer against the discomfort of confrontational face-to-face interactions further fertilizes anger and frustration, which is how you get to death threats for a missed field goal.

As Sanderson pointed out, this isn’t always — or even often — the case. Whenever an athlete is bombarded by death threats, you can bet many other fans will chastise the offenders, making it clear that such behavior isn’t welcome in their fanbase. Nevertheless, the threats, harassment and general anger persist. And they could get worse in the near future amid renewed enthusiasm and the impact of gambling.

Baylor basketball’s MaCio Teague, for example, encountered some confusing harassment after his team’s recent win over Kansas State. Teague played well, with 15 points, four rebounds and three assists. But he missed two free throws near the game’s end, which prevented Baylor from covering the 6.5-point spread. He received over 20 messages from strangers attacking him on Twitter and Instagram, and one person even requested $11 on Venmo.

As reported by Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, one message to Teague read: “How much you get paid to throw that game? You’re shooting 85% and you miss both? The line was -6.5! Come on bro..Think about the people that have money on the game!”

“I don’t know what a spread even is,” Teague told Goodman, whose story branded Teague’s hecklers as “a new kind of social media troll.”

But the phenomenon isn’t exactly new. In 2013, then-New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs received a death threat imploring him to perform well for the sake of his threatener’s fantasy football team.

Is sports becoming more like politics, or vice versa?

We’ve seen this in real life, too. Anyone who’s attended enough sporting events has seen a fight break out between opposing fans; Alabama football superfan Harvey Updyke infamously poisoned the famed Toomer’s Corner oak trees at Auburn; and a drug cartel bodyguard murdered Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar following his own goal during the 1994 World Cup. But such consequences are rare, and in pre-social media life, such levels of anger and frustration among sports fans seemed less likely to flourish.

Even now, anger in sports could be read as much ado about nothing. Sports and fandoms of all kinds are emotionally charged, but unlike a government, they don’t determine how people live. But they can even serve as a valuable emotional outlet — after all, if someone is going to rage about something, wouldn’t it be better that it be something like sports?

“One of its appeals is appealing to that base level of groupness,” Hirt said. “It’s our team, and our territory, and fighting the competition, and there’s a winner and a loser. It’s, like, gladiator kind of stuff.”

So perhaps it looks like fandom is becoming as toxic as politics — at first. And, Hirt observed, “it’s gotten more intense that way.” But again, it’s sports — it’s always been about intensity and emotion, even if social media warps and amplifies the accompanying anger. A better question might be whether social media has made politics more like sports.

“It’s not issue-based. It’s really just based on affiliation, on tribalism. And it seems like a lot of things are going that way, that people are thinking from that perspective,” Hirt said, tossing out several possible reasons, including disinformation forcing people to latch onto ideas that make them feel safe and assured. “It feels like politics has moved more and more that way.”