The way we relate to professional athletes is a funny thing. They come into our homes via the TV weekly, nightly, and sometimes even hourly. In the fleeting few moments, we see them off the field (or ice, or diamond, or pitch), they are typically friendly, jovial, and serious about their profession, but not in a way that overstates their place in the world. Their social media, often created by content teams working for their organization, gives us a rosy window into their lives — their children, their favorite movies, and how much they love their dog. It’s seductive and it’s meant to be that way. After all, the entire purpose of sports organizations is to keep you watching.
These glimpses of what we think athletes can feel like making windows into their souls, but are, in fact, extremely limited looks into a person’s life. You see what the organization’s social media team (and by extension, the organization itself) wants you to see. Nothing more. Of course, it wasn’t always this way. There were a hundred years of professional sports without social media. But back then journalists were bound by a different code. No one wanted to spill the beans on Mickey Mantle’s drinking or allegations of Jim Brown’s domestic violence, or Joe DiMaggio reportedly abusing Marilyn Monroe the night after she filmed her infamous subway scene in The Seven Year Itch. Reporters kept quiet, and fans didn’t know. (Neither Mantle, Hull, nor DiMaggio were ever charged with any crimes).
This strange dynamic has led to a truly bizarre phenomenon in sports: The parasocial relationship between fans and players. One site describes parasocial relationships as “one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence.” And no place do parasocial relationships flourish more than in the world of sports. In fact, teams count on it.
So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised yesterday, when after Deadspin published two pieces critical of famous hockey players — “Good riddance, Bobby Hull” and “The NHL isn’t for you” — the emails came in fast and furious. What always does surprise me, though, is the vehemence with which men (and it’s almost always men) defend their heroes from well-documented allegations, and the vitriolic abuse they hurl at reporters who are simply stating well-known facts.
For example, “saltywood” here is extremely upset that the New York Rangers are being criticized (widely, I might add) for ditching the Pride Night jerseys they were supposed to wear last Friday.
“Sam fels (sic) . Go fuck yourself... I was at that ranger game.. I’m glad they didn’t wear the fag jerseys and put that rainbow fudge packing tape on the sticks.. I’d shit on that ass fucking flag.”
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And here’s another from Jeff, who uses more exclamation points than I did writing notes in junior high and is extremely misinformed about the role of the First Amendment in society:
“So, your article on Ivan Provorov and the Rangers concerning pride night!!! Let’s get something straight first off it’s a choice!! Second let’s say I want to bring atheists into the sports world and want recognition for so. You tell me if a group, person does not agree with my beliefs it’s against equality?!! Get your head straight Provorov did not bash or show hate either (sic) did the rangers. Why is personal belief of (right and or wrong) being Involved (sic) in sports? Should not be corrected by ones (sic) thoughts!! Leave personal life decisions up to the individual, talk about sports since that’s your job nothing else. Bringing this up is taking away from our first amendment and going against all on (sic) what our constitution says and stands for. You as a writer should be ashamed of your self (sic) and should not be called a writer of sports but a writer of personal agenda and opinions Based (sic) on one’s beliefs, (sic) Please educate your sel f (sic) and think out side (sic) the box and not what one or (sic) correct society, so they say, tells you!!”
For his part, Jon simply sent us the YouTube links to Green Day’s “F.O.D.” — which stands for “Fuck off and Die” — which is ironic, considering that Green Day has been pretty open about being accepting of everyone at their concerts, going so far as to call their shows “a safe space.”
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. And the messages upset about our treatment of Bobby Hull were as good, if not better. And by “better,” I mean much more terrible. Some of our favorites include:
The guys who responded to our litany of abuse and racism attributed to Bobby Hull by saying “Oh, so you guys never make mistakes?”
Um… not THOSE kinds of “mistakes,” sir.
But the point of this piece is not to whine about all the nasty messages that came in yesterday. We’ve been in this game long enough to know how social media (and fan interaction) works. The point is to ask the men who respond to well-founded criticism of athletes they love in this way what the hell they are thinking. Bobby Hull never needed you to defend him, he had the entire Blackhawks organization do that while he was still alive. And the same goes for Provorov, and all the New York Rangers, who have layers of agents, publicists, lawyers, and various NHL league officials to make sure they are well-shielded from hearing any sort of criticism and, if any do manage to reach players’ ears, yet more professionals to make sure they don’t have to respond to it in any meaningful way. And if you believe that pro athletes in any way care about the fans who run around screaming at people on social media or sending unhinged emails to media outlets on their behalf, I have some Trump steaks to sell you.
You know who does see your berserk tweets defending Bobby Hull? Jewish hockey fans. Black hockey fans. Women who have been in abusive relationships and are possibly still trapped there. You know who does see your tweets about Provorov and the Rangers and “muh rights!”? That young hockey fan who is still in the closet. The trans hockey player who has learned that hockey is not a safe space for her. The former NHL fans who have learned that the NHL is rife with players who refuse to acknowledge the humanity of marginalized groups of people, including themselves.
Shouting down those who point out the flaws in famous people is also a way of silencing victims. Imagine how many people might have been helped if this country started a dialogue about toxic masculinity and domestic abuse back when Joe DiMaggio and Jim Brown and Bobby Hull were in their prime? We’d be a lot farther down the road to eradicating domestic violence than we are now.
So to all the fans out there who come running from the dark corners of the internet to defend the honor of their favorite players, stand down, huh? We get it, you feel like your 1950s view of how things “should” be is under attack. The world is changing. You no longer sit on the top of the pile just by virtue of the biological lottery. But find a better way to spend your time. Have you considered pickleball?