For some NBA fans, Danny Green’s mistake in Game 5 of the NBA finals could not be overlooked.
After Green, a shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers at the time, missed a three-pointer that could have changed the outcome of the game, he and his fiancée, Blair Bashen, received death threats from fans on social media.
According to Ian Mendes, a TSN 1200 Ottawa radio host and longtime member of sports media, this kind of behaviour is not uncommon among sports fans—and has only worsened with the increased popularity of social media.
“When I came out of journalism school 20 years ago, [social media] wasn’t there,” Mendes said. “So when fans were angry, it was in a vacuum, it wasn’t for everybody to see.”
With the rise of social media, aggrieved sports fans have access to a platform on which they could share their thoughts at any time of day—a key ingredient for toxic fan culture, Mendes said.
Mendes said he started noticing the trend during the infancy of Twitter. The access to these platforms has given people the ability to share any thought they might have.
“I do think that this is absolutely a phenomenon in sports, where people feel like whatever thought they have, they’re going to share,” Mendes said. “[Danny Green] just missed a basket. That’s all he did … and he got death threats for that.”
Mendes said 20 years ago, vocalizing this kind of anger towards an athlete would have been much more difficult. Now, the issue is everyone feels like they can do it with ease, he said.
“When you think of fans, it’s short for fanatics,” Mendes said. “Don’t ever forget that.”
The Oxford Dictionary defines a fanatic as someone who has “excessive and single-minded zeal”—which may translate to problems with impulse control, such as in relation to their favourite sports team.
“The marriage between fanaticism with sports and social media creates the perfect recipe for negativity,” Mendes said.
John Rodenburg, program director and morning show co-host for TSN 1200, shared similar sentiments.
“There’s no doubt that things are much rougher now than they used to be, obviously, the advent of social media has had a huge impact on that,” Rodenburg said.
This anonymity has emboldened people to express their views more, Rodenburg said.
“People now feel that they can say anything because there’s a cloak of anonymity around them,” he said.
This intense fan culture already existed prior to the rise of social media, but it was expressed in different forms, Mendes and Rodenburg said. Prior to the rise of social media, fans would need to confront players face-to-face to release their anger directly at the player.
In 2004, Saskatchewan Roughriders fans egged punter and placekicker Paul McCallum’s house, dumped manure on his lawn and threatened him—all because the kicker missed two field goals that could have changed the outcome of the team’s 27-25 overtime loss against the B.C. Lions.
“Now, people would just look for this guy online and go at him, but back then people showed up to his house,” Mendes said.
The impact on athletes
Though fans can get too invested in actual games, Nathaniel Behar, former Carleton Raven and now CFL free agent, agreed that true toxicity comes from social media.
The athlete has been the target of some of this behaviour.
“As a rookie, before I left for Edmonton, I had people message me saying they hope I blew my knee out first on the field and stuff like that,” Behar said. “It’s just stuff that people will never be able to say to somebody’s face, but they get emboldened for whatever reason by being online.”
“It’s probably the nastiest part of sport culture in general now, but it is what it is,” he said, adding that verbal abuse is either something athletes get used to or are negatively affected by.
“It’s definitely hard when you go to a new place, a new city, and you feel like people in that city don’t value you as a human,” Behar said. “It’s tolerable, but it definitely does take away from what should be a joyous moment in your life—being a pro athlete—but that’s the nature of the beast.”
Fans and the herd mentality
Rodenburg said the strong sense of loyalty fans feel towards their favourite teams could be a factor in this rising trend.
“The reason that sports are so intoxicating as a fan is that you have all these other people around you who feel the same way about your team, and that’s what makes cheering for sports teams so much fun,” Rodenburg said.
When people see others negatively commenting about specific athletes on social media, they may feel more encouraged to do so themselves.
When fans start directing negative and hurtful comments towards athletes, many may forget that they are only human, Mendes said.
“Just because an athlete makes six or seven million (in income), doesn’t mean … he or she is not a human being like the rest of us,” he said. “We sometimes dehumanize athletes based on their salaries, but they have feelings.”
As the most prominent sport in Canada, Mendes said hockey players are often subjected to this type of behaviour.
“There’s a lot of guys that would rather go play for the Florida Panthers and not be bothered by fans and the pressure to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs because of the social media and the media pressure that comes on,” Mendes said.
This kind of pressure from social media can make some professional athletes hesitant to have a social media presence at all.
“I know of players that won’t get on Twitter or have dropped their Twitter accounts because of the negativity,” Mendes said.
“There’s a lot of players who are on social media but anonymously, because they want to know what’s going on. They want to follow sports, but they don’t want the hassle of people knowing.”
Mendes has spoken to three NHL players who have confirmed they are on Twitter, but under a pseudonym.
“If you want to feel connected in the year 2020, you kind of have to have a social media account in some way, shape or form, but what if you could have it without the toxicity associated with it?” he said.
Some professional athletes have been exposed using fake accounts in recent years.
In 2017, Kevin Durant was caught using a fake account to reply to fan comments when he accidentally replied to a tweet directed to his fake account from his official account.
KD has secret accounts that he uses to defend himself and forgot to switch to them when he was replying to this guy I’m actually speechless pic.twitter.com/9245gnpa3c
— 🤠 (@harrisonmc15) September 18, 2017
“If an athlete doesn’t have (a verified account), there’s a good chance they’re on Twitter, you just don’t know about it,” Mendes said.
A fan’s perspective
Stéphane Brisson-Merrick is the co-founder of the Bytown Boys Supporters Club, which has been supporting Atlético Ottawa and other soccer clubs in the Ottawa-Gatineau area since before the Ottawa Fury days.
Brisson-Merrick said the group has no time for this sort of toxic behavior.
“If you start being toxic we get upset because we don’t want that environment,” Brisson-Merrick said. “I see people complaining and leaving groups, complaining about fans, and all I can think is I’m happy we don’t have that.”
Brisson-Merrick said the club doesn’t support this because they are a tight-knit group and don’t have the time for such things.
“We don’t like the losses, but after the loss, we’ll go back, have a drink together, go grab food or go to somebody’s place to hang out and talk about the game,” he said. “We don’t let it get to us because we have bigger fish to fry in our lives—got to make sure our rent is paid.”
Crossing the line
There is a fine line between fans being passionate and toxic, Mendes explained.
“You start to creep on that line when you add social media—when you feel compelled to tweet at an athlete, ‘hey, you ruined my Sunday,’” he said.
Some fans get so invested in watching sports that it affects those around them. Recently, a video clip went viral after a college football fan got so angry during one game that he threw a beer bottle through his window, shattering the glass.
— Chad ➐ (@ChadBlue_83) October 18, 2020
“That, to me, is crossing the line,” Mendes said. “I think for sure we’ve probably seen a bunch of instances of fans crossing that line.”
Another way to cross that line is by punching and firing multiple gunshots into a TV—something a Dallas Cowboys fan did after a loss to the Arizona Cardinals, according to Rodenburg.
“That’s unhinged,” Rodenburg said. “That’s what we’re trying to tamp down.”
Fans have always been a key component of sports and the sports atmosphere. But as social media has become increasingly popular in the sports industry, it has changed the way fans and athletes interact with one another.
Featured image by Sara Mizannojehdehi.