It took me more than two weeks to think of how to start this post, and that one word is all I could come up with. It sums up how a professional football player must have felt about sports fans’ behavior a couple weeks ago.
It was Dec. 29 and like most people in Chicago that late Sunday afternoon, I was locked in on the Chicago Bears’ winner-take-all regular-season finale against the hated Green Bay Packers. To the victor was the NFC North crown and a playoff spot, while the loser’s season would end right there on the Soldier Field sod. The stakes by the lakefront were obviously very high.
What looked like a Bears victory early in the fourth quarter turned into a late-game defensive meltdown as a touchdown by the Packers with 38 seconds remaining silenced most of the 62,708 in attendance.
That silence, though, didn’t last long.
I jumped on Twitter soon after the clock hit 0:00 to monitor the fans’ reaction. I knew the comments wouldn’t be kind following this heartbreaking defeat, but the venom being spewed at Bears safety Chris Conte, who was beat for the game-winning score in the final minute, was difficult to read:
“I hope @ChrisConte dies of aids. F&%$ him. He’s the worst safety in history. Cut #ChrisConte”
@chrisconte you’re a f&%$@&% joke. You cost the bears that game u piece of s&#@. I hope u saved your money b/c u won’t have a job next year.”
@chrisconte I will kill your babies.
To make this even worse (if that’s possible), these messages were being directed to Chris Conte, a reporter in Nashville, and not to the Bears’ Chris Conte, who had previously disabled his Twitter account. Some fans Tweeted their apologies to the “other Chris Conte” after learning they were Tweeting to the wrong person, but does an ‘I’m sorry’ after the fact reverse their attempt to publicly shame someone who just happened to have a rough day at the office?
“Give fans a public forum, and it can become a mob mentality,” said Dr. Janet Johnson, clinical assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.
“What we once said alone, now we're online saying these things, and maybe we shouldn't be. There is too much reacting going on with Twitter and not enough processing.”
Instead, it’s finding like-minded fans (which is rather easy after your team’s season ends), locating a target then firing insults with a worldwide audience reading every cruel Tweet.
“You get retweeted and it gets bigger and it can go viral,” Dr. Johnson said. “Even a hashtag can have a life of its own."
Conte didn’t fire back, instead accepting the criticism and deciding to move on. Perhaps he understands that athletes are in a no-win situation when it comes to getting into a social media dispute with the fans, who Dr. Johnson said are “still not used to talking to public figures.” Taking the high road in the face of mounting criticism made me think of a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that I heard the morning of that Bears-Packers game.
It was delivered by author and research professor Dr. Brené Brown during a speech she gave on being vulnerable:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how a strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the main who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”
Fans will continue to criticize athletes because that’s just what they do. But actually getting yourself out there, giving it your best effort and leaving yourself open to criticism. There's bravery in that, no matter what field you’re competing in.