What does it tell you, when almost the first thing on the mind of a professional athlete who loses a contest isn’t what a tough loss it was but how many death wishes or death threats are liable to show up in his or her direction on social media? It ought to tell you how brain damaged too many sports fans are.
Shelby Rogers got waxed in straight sets by Britain’s Emma Raducanu in round four of tennis’s U.S. Open Monday afternoon. The 28-year-old told a press conference after the match she expected “nine million” social media death threats afterward. That’d teach her to draw the spotlight after she flattened number one-ranked Ashleigh Barry in the third round.
“Obviously we appreciate the spotlight in those moments,” Rogers told the conference, “but then you have [losing to Raducanu] today and I’m going to have nine million death threats and whatnot. It’s very much polarizing, one extreme to the other very quickly.”
She wasn’t alone. Former Open winner Sloane Stephens lost this time, Angelique Kerber beating her in three sets after she took the first set. Stephens says her Instagram account was flooded with a few thousand abusive messages some of which went from mere swearing and racial insults (she is black) to downright threats of death and sexual abuse.
“This isn’t talked about enough,” Stephens posted, “but it really freaking sucks.”
It really freaking should be talked about more than enough. I’ve done it. I don’t want to minimise what Rogers and Stephens now deal with, but baseball and other sports people have put up with that kind of vile nonsense for decades. Just not so instantly as today.
Long before there was such a thing as social media, hapless umpire Don Denkinger found himself on the wrong end of a harassment campaign after his blown call in the ninth inning of 1985 World Series Game Six helped cost the Cardinals a win they should have been two, not three outs from consummating.
Back then, about the worst that could happen beyond snarky newspaper columns was a radio disc jockey obtaining and airing your home address and telephone number. Two St. Louis disc jockeys did just that to Denkinger. He received death threats by mail for a couple of years to follow and, at one point, needed MLB to ask the FBI for help.
The fact that the Cardinals still had three defensive outs to play to nail that Series, or still had a seventh game to play if they lost Game Six, escaped the slime contingent. Denkinger being rotated to calling balls and strikes for Game Seven didn’t mean the Cardinals should implode in that game escaped them, too.
At least Denkinger waited until after that Series for the full brunt of his mishap to happen. Phillies reliever Mitch Williams had no such fortune in the 1993 Series. Thanks to a few death threats from enough indignant Phillies fans, the hyperactive lefthander spent a sleepless night or two with a shotgun in his lap after blowing a Series save . . . in Game Four.
Williams went on to throw the pitch Joe Carter belted to win that Series in the bottom of the ninth in Game Six, of course. His stand-up post-game performance may have saved his life otherwise. But he shouldn’t have had to spend a night cradling his weapon instead of his wife.
I’ve said it until I’m blue in the keyboard. Don’t ask what would have happened if Denkinger, Williams, and members of the long, sad roll of sports “goats”—the Bill Buckners, Ralph Brancas, Gary Andersons, Roberto Baggios, Wrong-Way Marshalls, Fred Merkles, and Andres Escobars—had had their moments of horror in the social media era.
Horror, or death: Colombia’s goalkeeper Escobars inadvertently put the ball into his own net in soccer’s 1994 World Cup tournament. That night, he was out with friends when a car pulled up, an argument broke out, and he was shot to death.
Denkinger at least had FBI help until the idiocy passed. What defense or protection do you have against social media, even if you leave it? Rogers says she doesn’t like social media but she’s forced to make a presence there because of her sport’s marketing. Maybe her sport and all sports need to re-think that a little.
Mets relief pitcher Edwin Diaz walked himself into trouble and a Mets loss in Washington Monday. All that did was throttle the Mets’ pennant race recovery a little. It didn’t blow up the subway during rush hour.
Diaz is known as much for his mound struggles as his mound triumphs. Maybe that protects him from death threats. Or maybe we don’t know that he’s received them, or how many he’s received. The Mets’ administration seems to care more about their players replying to the boo birds than whether the boo birds might graduate to threatening their players’ lives.
Remember Indians reliever Nick Wittgren—battered for five runs in the ninth, his wife and family subject to social media death threats. Wittgren said it was said that such is now the pro sports norm—and that 90 percent of players he knows personally have received them. If you need me to tell you what’s wrong with that picture, you have problems I’m not qualified to solve.
Social media contends with the shouting-“fire”-in-the-movie-house dilemna. It thrives on free speech, but it also has to draw certain lines that, often as not, refuse to be drawn organically. The sports goat business stopped being funny a long time ago. The sports death threat business needs to be put out of business even faster, if possible.
The law says you can’t threaten the lives of the president of the United States or any public official. The law also says you can’t send threatening snail or e-mail to someone. A professional gambler faces five years in federal prison for Instagram threats he sent the lives of players in a 2019 game the Rays lost to the White Sox in extra innings.
It shouldn’t stop there. Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms should think seriously about not just banning such scum contingent from their platforms but arranging such charges against as many of them as possible regardless of whether or not they have money on the table.
Games are not life and death. The fate of what’s left of the free world doesn’t hang in their balance. Mortal men and women in an entertainment try their best and fail. It doesn’t make them cowards, chokers, or moral degenerates when someone on the other side is just that hair’s breadth better in the biggest of the big moments.
Yet people are prepared to perform massacres upon the defeated in sports while letting far more grave misbehaviour die on the proverbial vine. This is above and beyond mere fan passions. It shouldn’t be enabled.
You wish for openers that people were at least as outraged over New York’s mishandlings of the pan-damn-ic (it took a sexual harassment scandal to do what that malfeasance didn’t and rid the statehouse of Andrew Cuomo) as they might be over Shelby Rogers losing a shot at winning the U.S. Open, or the Mets losing a shot at the postseason.