When I watched sports as a young child in the 1980s, I assumed most successful athletes were heroes who were embraced in their professional hometowns.
Sure, you’d read or hear about the occasional bad relationship between a superstar and the fans and/or media, but they seemed to be the exception.
Even former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who was super-sensitive to fan criticism when he struggled to gain his footing early in his NFL career, had already earned the adulation of the black and gold faithful well-before he won his second-straight Super Bowl MVP award after leading the Steelers to their fourth Lombardi trophy in six seasons back in January of 1980.
But Bradshaw was obviously someone who never got over the fan negativity that came at him in the form of boos and, I’m sure, hate mail. Of course, back in those days, fans had to actually sit down and write a letter to a player, buy a stamp, find the nearest mailbox and mail it to the team facility. I’m sure it was hard to sit there as a professional athlete and read dozens of hateful letters that were likely filled with the most vile and evil insults known to the English language. But at least back then, a player could choose not to read his mail if he wanted to maintain a positive vibe. And I’m sure many of the nasty letters that came a player’s way didn’t have a return address and probably didn’t include the person’s name—certainly not their face.
Today is different for professional athletes thanks to the advent of social media. Unlike when I was a kid, it’s quite obvious in the modern era that most professional athletes have almost as many critics as they do fans—even the most successful at their sport. Instead of receiving dozens of letters each and every week, they are on the receiving end of hundreds and thousands of Tweets, Facebook comments, etc.
Even when a player posts something that has nothing to do with his profession—”Happy Mother’s Day to this beautiful lady who helped make me the man I am today!”—he is often bombarded with the most ridiculous insults—“Does your mom know how much her son sucks at football?”
The fans obviously come to play every day on the internet: “Instead of asking us which suit looks better, why don’t you concentrate on catching footballs?” So it simply has to get tiresome to have everything you do on social media related back to your performance on the playing field. It has to wear a person out to have to deal with that stuff on a non-stop basis—we’re talking literally.
Therefore, it’s almost understandable that someone will lash out at the fans every now and then. Yes, it’s smart to leave that stuff go—quite frankly, I’m impressed by how many actually do turn the other cheek in the face of such ugliness—but players are human, and every now and then, one of them is going to retaliate with a salvo that insults a fan’s intelligence, looks or even his/her bank account.
The player almost always comes off looking like the bad guy in this scenario and may even have his account suspended by his bosses. This actually happened to former Steelers safety Mike Mitchell in 2014 after he lashed out at fans via Twitter direct messages.
Many say that players should stay away from social media. But that would be asking them to stop engaging in an activity that is omnipresent in society.
It’s pointless to say the fans should comport themselves a little better when engaging with professional athletes on social media—for every fan that decided to send players hateful letters back in the old days, there were probably dozens who would have texted the same things if today’s access was a reality. But that doesn’t make the behavior right. That doesn’t mean it’s fair for Joe from Scott Township to get away free and clean after baiting a professional athlete into insulting him on Twitter.
Finally, there are players who only have themselves to blame for the constant wave of criticism that comes their way. But most professional athletes don’t deserve that kind of daily negativity.
Yes, it’s part of the job. Yes, it comes with the territory. But we all have our breaking points.
It’s not always easy to turn the other cheek when you’ve run out of cheeks to turn.