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Unfortunately, it’s getting to be more and more of a common occurrence – fans of college football teams are taking to social media in the aftermath of a loss or poor performance in order to harass or humiliate athletes. In the base-case scenario, they are leaving hateful comments on the social media accounts of these athletes. And in still other cases, they are taking even more extreme measures, such as leaving death threats or stalking them in cyberspace. Clearly, something has to be done to clean up this sad state of affairs.
The Penn State case
The case that everyone is talking about right now, of course, is the case of Penn State QB Sean Clifford. In the aftermath of a disappointing 31-26 Penn State college football loss to Minnesota, fans took to social media to vent. And many went too far, leaving death threats for the young star QB, who unfortunately tossed three interceptions in the game, including one in the final minutes of the game to seal the loss for Penn State. In response to the death threats, Clifford simply deleted his social media accounts. He was sick and tired of all the hate, as well as what he referred to as “explicit, tough-to-read messages” constantly popping up in his social media feeds.
And the Penn State QB is hardly the only example of this extreme cyber bullying phenomenon at work. At the University of Nebraska, QB Adrian Martinez has acknowledged that he’s had similar types of problems with social media, and has leaned heavily on his coaches and teammates to help tune out all the cyber bullying online. In fact, he’s deleted Twitter from his phone entirely, such that he can’t get the latest hateful comments or mentions from so-called “fans.”
So what’s going on here? Until now, the tendency was to blame the victim: “If you want to play for an elite college sports team, you’re going to have learn to deal with these sorts of problems…” After all, most of the cyber bullying examples that we hear about in the media tend to feature young, glamorous players (i.e. the star QB) at sports powerhouse universities with rapid fan and alumni bases. It’s for this reason that some top college football programs – such as the one at Clemson – have banned social media use during the season. It’s perhaps the only way for young athletes to avoid these types of problems during the season.
But shouldn’t colleges and universities step up and take more responsibility? At the very least, they could put new social media policies in place. If students send out hate speech on social media, then the schools should hold them accountable. After all, what happened at Penn State will not be the last time it happens, and it’s important for the NCAA to get in front of this sooner rather than later. There is a real need to protect not just college athletes, but also all students, coaches and faculty members at universities across the nation.