Wednesday 22 January 2020

Comment: As the Josh Hader controversy showed, today's social media age has ingrained sport with a dark toxicity

Ed Malyon

The internet is the great connector of people. Stephen Hawking described the way it links people as being like “neurons in a giant brain” but every brain has dark thoughts, murky corners, and the internet has an abundance of those.

A global information superhighway is quite evidently a good thing but, as with every seemingly great invention, there are unintended consequences. They say that going to the internet to find information is like trying to get a drink from a fire hydrant, you are likely to quench your thirst but you’re also going to drench yourself and get a water jet that is something akin to a punch in the face.

By allowing instant transmission of data around the world, the internet made the things that are big into huge monsters that are impossible to tame. Manchester United’s immense digital growth is an example, while on the other side of the coin, had Leeds United enjoyed their run of two titles and three second places of the early 1970s in the 21st century then it is difficult to see how they wouldn’t be one of Europe’s superclubs with fans around the world like Arsenal or Chelsea. The internet is a magnifying glass and that works in both good ways and bad.

As well as pumping up the big to be bigger, the internet has given the niche and minority an open gate to the world.

Take cricket, where the County Championship appeared to be struggling a decade ago but now has the capacity to stream its games live to fans. Or take e-sports, which 20 years ago was just ‘computer games’ – something you did in a bedroom with perhaps a friend or two but now is an industry worth billions where, even at the grassroots level, any kid can hook up an Xbox to the internet and play against hundreds of strangers.

Or imagine you happen to be a baseball fan living in England. For decades you would have had to order monthly magazines from abroad to get your fix of America’s pastime, poring over every word on every page multiple times until the next edition arrived. Then along came internet forums and, now, fully-fledged streaming services that allow you to catch every game from any device and fill the rest of your time with MLB’s original programming. In that way it has clearly improved lives, it has opened up the planet.

Take the other side of that, though. Picture an angry 17-year-old tweeting things like “white power” and “I hate gays” or liberally using the ’n-word’.

For so long they would have been left simply seething in their parents’ basement in small-town Maryland, and while they might have made some comments to friends in the schoolyard they would ultimately have had real life beat into them what is or isn’t acceptable.

Make a racist comment at work and you’re fired. Shout a homophobic slur in the street and you’re getting booked at the police station. The real world, and the education of the ageing process, has a way of straightening these behaviours out in the way that the internet can’t, because the internet is policed by nobody and affords anonymity to anyone and everyone, affording their views a similar prominence to those who should actually be listened to.

Social media’s magnifying glass instead means that those who want to spew bile and vitriol not only have free rein to do so but that they can directly reach any target they wish. It is why so many sportspeople you speak to don’t ever actually read their responses on Instagram or Twitter, it simply isn’t worth how it makes you feel. Reading one abusive, hurtful message can outweigh tens or hundreds of positive ones. It might not make sense but feelings rarely do. One professional described it as if ‘the dark thoughts’ are always there – sometimes they just need poking with a stick to rouse them. Now people can do that from anywhere on the globe, with immediate effects on a stranger’s mental health.

And what of that teenager in Maryland tweeting racist messages? Well in this case he is Josh Hader, a Major League Baseball pitcher whose offensive messages resurfaced during MLB’s All-Star game last week.

Now 24, Hader has apologised for those tweets and shown contrition which is to be acknowledged. There is not a person reading this – or writing it – who has not done something stupid when they were younger and in some ways Hader is a victim of the age he grew up in.

“I’m deeply sorry for what I’ve said and what’s been going on,” he said of a number of racist and homophobic tweets. “It doesn’t reflect any of my beliefs going on now. I was young, immature and stupid.”

Hader has undergone ‘sensitivity training’ according to a statement from the league and he will make amends, no doubt, with his actions in the future.

But what sat so uncomfortably about the Hader incident was not really his fault at all, it was his return to play for the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday night.

The left-handed reliever came in to the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers to a standing ovation from the home fans, a predominantly white crowd inside Miller Park.

For anyone who doesn’t have the ultimate American privilege of being born caucasian and male, watching a man who tweeted about “white power” being received like this by a huge white crowd could barely have been more deflating, more degrading – and that’s without even considering what is going on in wider American society in 2018. For anyone LGBT+ who looked at Hader’s “I hate gay people” tweet and then back to the screen for his ovation, it was like a parallel universe, or was it? Were we really surprised given the world around us?

This reaction is not necessarily the fault of social media but it is where the toxicity of social media intersects with sports culture. Hader’s poisonous tweets have resulted in a slap on the wrist and a standing ovation, while the residents of Wisconsin have decided that their response was the appropriate one.

It is a creeping – if not already dominant – element of fan culture that demonstrating undying commitment is a positive thing without exception. There appears to now be a red line of decency that is fading behind the gif-loaded, emojified news feeds of extreme fandom.

In the Premier League last season, Gaetan Bong was booed by Burnley fans after accusing their former striker, Jay Rodriguez, of racially abusing him. Bong was subjected to volleys of online abuse, lots of it racially offensive, for making a complaint in good faith about what he heard Rodriguez say.

We are forced to hope that it is not indicative of the wider world that someone who sends racist and homophobic tweets gets celebrated and those who complain about racism get jeered and hounded.

The tribalism of sports is perpetuated by teams in order to shield them from criticism and unwanted attention as well as converting follows and likes into pounds and dollars. It is a part of sport that will never disappear and, in all likelihood, it will get worse.

But at some point decency must triumph over blind support. The world around us is already in enough trouble without sport, the planet’s greatest, meaningless sideshow, being dragged into the toxicity.

Is it fair to say that the social media age has created a toxicity around sport that will be impossible to reverse? Let’s hope not.

But the great connector of people has somehow managed to create, or exacerbate, a damaging disconnect.

Independent News Service

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