Social media presents additional pressures for athletes


The Internet might as well be considered a world of its own.

It’s a virtual land filled with endless information, viral videos and cat pictures. Hordes of cat pictures, actually.

The World Wide Web also offers a relatively new, sometimes dangerous craze — social media.

With nearly 650 million members signed up, Twitter is one of those booming websites that is designed for connecting people. While harmless in practice, could this opportunity that lets strangers connect with student-athletes be damaging to their psyche?

Head coach Tom Izzo thinks so.

“I’ve had grown men, (my players) in my office in tears because of what’s being written (on Twitter),” Izzo said on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike” last week.

Playing for No. 13 MSU isn’t all about glitz and glamor. With the no-holds-barred arena the Internet can be, student-athletes now are a human target to outraged supporters and rival fans looking to burrow underneath players’ skin.

According to Scott Becker, acting director of the MSU Counseling Center, some people might not even know the impact their words have on student-athletes.

“An athlete is an idealized public figure, and like other celebrities, they can be subtly dehumanized, treated as demi-gods and as a ‘fair target,’ presumably immune to the attacks of fans or the press,” Becker said in an email. “In other words, fans may not realize that they are attacking a real person.”

Under pressure

Make no mistake of it, dealing with insults is nothing new to college sports. Players have come and gone, but Izzo is used to he and them being the target of verbal bullets.

“You think fans are any different than they were five years ago? I don’t,” Izzo said at last Tuesday’s press conference. “I mean, I’ve been called an angry midget since I went to Ann Arbor, you know?“

It’s not like players would never hear about bad games or have opposing fans try to get in their heads either.

Drew Neitzel, an MSU guard from 2004-08, played for the Spartans just before Twitter started to boom. Back then, pesky fans didn’t need a laptop to do their damage — instead, they just needed a phone line.

Suspecting it was an Illinois fan, Neitzel said for a short span of time he would get a call around 2 a.m. every night, and every time, the person would leave a voicemail. The idea was to get inside the star guard’s head, but the plan backfired.

“Eventually they just stopped,” Neitzel said. “I had my phone turned off, so it wasn’t waking me up or anything. I got a kick out of it, because these kids’ lives revolve around me.”

Twitter, on the other hand, cannot be turned off. Even when a message isn’t directly sent to their handle, people still can look up their name to see what people have to say about them.

Junior forward Russell Byrd admits he is one of those people who searches his name, and a good portion of what he sees are people burying him in insults.

“It’s definitely negative for me — people talk a lot of (trash) about me,” Byrd said with a blank stare after Tuesday’s practice. “I just try to be bigger than all that. … I’ve gotten better at just ignoring all that stuff.

“It’s just pretty pathetic that you just have to hide behind a computer to say those things. I would love for some of those people to be in our shoes and see what we go through.”

Byrd and his teammates can try all they want to ignore it, but the fact is that it’s still floating in the virtual world. Even away from Twitter, Izzo said he encourages people to brush off any negativity, but it’s far easier said than done.

“You never let something bother you until it happens to you,” Izzo said. “Cancer’s important to all of us. If somebody in this (press conference) lost somebody to cancer … it means more to you than it does to somebody that hasn’t.”

But why not just delete the account? Izzo’s answer is simple — people are too dependent on phones.

“Why do they read it? Hell, we made it so it’s intravenous now,” he said. “They can’t breathe without having a damn phone.”

Power down

Just like any addiction, kicking the habit of checking social media is no easy task.

Along with a few other teammates, sophomore guard Denzel Valentine got rid of the Twitter app on his phone after receiving backlash during the middle of the season.

But it isn’t just the pessimism that could get to the players’ heads, too many compliments can do just as much damage in a different way.

“Reading the good stuff too, that’s not good. If you have a good game and you read the good stuff and you get gassed up, you can come out with the wrong mindset,” Valentine said. “It’s a hard habit to break, but it’s worth it because it’s going to make me better in the end.”

Senior guard Keith Appling might have the best possible strategy in beating the habit — by never creating a Twitter or Instagram account in the first place.

He and senior guard Dan Chapman are the only two players on the team who don’t have a Twitter account.

“I’m the type of person that doesn’t really like people in my business,” Appling said. “The main reason of why I try to differ from social media, is there are people who make those (accounts) just to pick at athletes and say things just to try to get a reaction. Everybody has their boiling point … and if something crazy was said about me, I would probably respond in the wrong way.”

However, that doesn’t mean his name isn’t on people’s timelines. On Twitter, there are three fake accounts with his namesake that have more than 5,000 followers combined. Appling has only heard about the accounts fronting as him, but he is taking it as a compliment.

“It’s weird — it’s crazy,” Appling said. “That doesn’t bother me at all, because that shows me that somebody admires me that much where they basically want people to think they are me.”

For people like Appling who stay away from social media altogether, Becker advises any person under major scrutiny have someone manage their account and filter out negative comments.

The Internet can be a fun place, but it also can be packed with vile remarks not just for this small sample of student-athletes, but for anyone on social media who leave themselves open to criticism online.

“In general, I think we’re all potentially vulnerable to becoming overly dependent or even addicted to social media,” Becker said. “So the focus on athletes is a concentrated reminder of something we should all be considering.”

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