Today’s athletes must tread carefully in an increasingly hostile world of social media


As the NFL’s most secure and successful coach, Belichick has the luxury, and the right, to ignore the online world. But it’s naive to pretend players will do the same.

For most of them, social media has always been part of their lives. And it’s impossible to ignore how much the tenor of the two-way social media conversation has changed in recent years. It’s meaner than ever out there, with attacks as personal as they’ve ever been. The reasons are many, but two obvious ones emerge: money and access.

From the explosion of daily fantasy betting, legal since a Supreme Court ruling three years ago, to the expanding connection to formerly unreachable stars, there is both reason and viability for angry fans to spread their bile.

Take the recent example of Raheem Mostert, the 49ers running back who went down with what was later revealed as a season-ending knee injury in Week 1. The online vitriol was so bad that Mostert’s wife took to Instagram to share how fans told her husband he “should kill himself, should be cut, about how he’s made of glass.”

Patriots running back Damien Harris (center) was flooded with angry messages after a crucial late fumble against the Dolphins in Week 1.Adam Hunger/Associated Press

That was for getting injured. Players like the Patriots’ Damien Harris and the Chiefs’ Clyde Edwards-Helaire, whose late-game fumbles cost their teams a potential win, saw their social-media feeds filled with similarly ugly anger, particularly from bettors who lost money.

It happens in every sport. At the recent US Open, American tennis players Shelby Rogers and Sloane Stephens shared stories of online abuse. In one extreme case adjudicated this past March, prominent sports gambler Benjamin “Parlay” Patz pleaded guilty to threatening Tampa Bay Rays baseball players via direct messages on Instagram.

According to a plea deal, Patz’s threats reportedly included the following: “I will enter your home while you sleep”; “And sever your neck open”; “I will kill your entire family”; “Everyone you love will soon cease”; “I will cut up your family”; and “Dismember then [sic] alive.” He faces up to five years in prison.

For Declan Hill, a University of New Haven professor and leading expert on the sports betting industry, these instances are an offshoot of the “gamblization of sports,” which he called a “new term that academics have made up.”

The University of Oxford PhD described the growing connection between sports leagues and gambling entities as “transforming the sport from being a sport to being a vehicle for gambling.”

“The classic case is horse racing,” Hill said. “Very few are there because they love the horses. They’re a vehicle for gambling addiction.

“In the UK, we are seeing a number of studies where young men in particular following the sport are no longer interested in the sport, but are interested in the gambling. It’s changing the nature of the sport. Guys are saying, ‘It’s not the same game unless I have a couple of bucks on it.’ ”

In the NFL’s case, that elephant has never been ignored in the room. League representative Brian McCarthy detailed the NFL’s efforts to protect the integrity of the game, as well as its guidance for teams and players should something cross the line. The NFL has dedicated resources to monitoring online abuse, going as far as reaching out to individual commenters who make threats.

“I just came from a security department meeting and part of the presentation to clubs and players is a primary message of ‘do not engage,’ ” McCarthy said. “Inform your multiple touchpoints, your security personnel, player engagement director … To borrow a phrase from Homeland Security, ‘See something, say something.’

“We also have a global security operations center, GSOC, which has proprietary and third-party tools to protect and analyze potential threats. Our security department works with clubs and makes the appropriate personnel aware. When and where necessary, we engage law enforcement. Many times we would directly contact the person that posted.

“The other part is we have the relationship with these platforms. If we see something that violates common decency, the policy is to have them remove it immediately.”

The Patriots declined to share their specific approach to online harassment of players, but McCarthy emphasized the ongoing conversation between the league and each franchise, citing increased resources for mental health both with clubs and at the league office.

It was concern over how players deal with such vitriol, of feeling as if fans see them as commodities rather than human beings, that prompted me to pose the question to Belichick. It wasn’t so much about his own defense, but how at least one element of his coaching acumen could be dedicated to helping players navigate that insidious world. To his credit, he tried to answer, noting that the best way to blunt such criticism is by sticking together.

“We all rely on each other, are accountable to each other, support each other,” Belichick said. “And we all make mistakes. You can make a mistake at the beginning of a game, at the end of a game, sometimes that gets magnified because of the timing of it. Things that could have happened at other points that could have had as much of an impact.

“We all need to correct mistakes — that goes for all of us. We do that as an individual, as a unit, and as a team.”

Veteran Patriots captain Matthew Slater takes his coach’s lead in not using social media, in part because he knows he would be too deeply affected by it. He does offer this advice to younger players:

“You can’t let people you don’t know or you’ll never meet speak into your life. You have to be careful who you allow to speak into your life and how you allow them to speak into your life.

“There’s a lot of negativity when it comes to social media. I remind these guys to remember to have a strong sense of self, remember who they are, the things they stand for, the things they hope to represent, the people in their lives that matter to them, family and friends, the people they have actual real relationships with.

“And as far as people who want to spew negativity on social media, you can’t empower them.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.



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