When he told me that story I did the one thing that seemed appropriate. I got on Twitter, found Shaq (the one with the blue check next to his name, so as not to be fooled by any impostors) and tweeted at him to tell him how great it was that we both liked grilled nuggets and Hi-C. I'm not sure if i've ever felt like such a "fanatic" before in my life, but the idea that he was seemingly so accessible was too much for my better sense to dissuade me. I don't know what I was expecting. Maybe that he would get my @mention to his specialty oversized iPhone, @reply to me saying how cool I was and express that we should be best friends forever. Or maybe the simple the idea that I could actually say something to a celebrity through the veil of social media made it safe and unthreatening. Either way, I did it...and immediately regretted it. Never in a million years would I meet Shaq and bring up how neat it is that we have the same taste in fast food poultry. Just because I could tell him didn't mean i should tell him. It wasn't mean spirited or racist or inappropriate (ok, maybe a little inappropriate), but it wasn't true to me. And it was entirely too easy to be untrue to myself through this new ocean of media.
As I watched the last play of the NFC Championship game and the post-game interview with Richard Sherman, I knew this new casual media interaction phenomenon was going to get ugly fast. Now let me say, first and foremost, that horrendous (yet entertaining) interview was not exactly "first class". He called himself the greatest, à la Mohammed Ali, degraded his opponent both professionally and personally, and borderline verbally abused the deer-in-headlights interviewer, Erin Andrews. He spit-yelled at the camera and made a lot of scowling faces. I'm not sure how I was supposed react to the TV at that moment, but I burst out laughing. It was a crash course in everything NOT to do in an interview. And it was hilarious to me. I went to Twitter immediately following the game to try and find a slow-mo replay of the last play and interview only to find an all out media siege against this man (yes, let's not forget he is, in fact, still a human being). At the least, people were calling him a thug and disgrace. At the worst, they were using racial slurs and epithets, generalizing his actions for an entire people group. It was truthfully embarrassing for me to read.
I thought about my interaction with Shaq. How behind the ramparts of the vast world wide web I allowed myself to become detached from who I am as a person and embrace the freedom/shed the responsibility that my keyboard gave me. As I continued to read the increasingly intense dialogues between Sherman's Twitter handle and these masked vigilantes, I began to feel for him. Life is never easy when it's lived in the spotlight. Everyday, athletes including myself, do our jobs in front of thousands and sometimes, in Sherman's case, millions of people. It's hard knowing that all of those fans you play in front of seem to have a vested interest in the outcome of your career, even if in reality, the outcome of each game has no real effect on them.
Before the world of social media, athletes could step off of the playing surface and step away from the cheering or booing. Perhaps the sting or elation of the outcome was still as pungent as it is now, but the analysis of how the individual played/acted was limited to the papers, and much later, programs like SportsCenter. Now, however, if we as athletes choose to take part in the social media (as many of us are encouraged to do from both fans and management) we open ourselves up to a barrage of criticism once reserved for professional journalists. 20 years ago, Richard Sherman's post game comments would have made the local news, SportsCenter's midnight telecast and, perhaps, even Dan Rather's national CBS Evening News. Yet the other night as I opened my Twitter app, I found tweets like this all over the place.
(The follwing picture contains graphic language and may not be suitable for children. It has been edited from its original form in order to censor properly. My apologies to anyone who, like me, is deeply offended by its contents.)
EDIT: tweet was taken down by user.
These are not the Dan Rathers of the world. Not SportCenter anchors or even journalism majors at the local community college. These are average everyday fans like you and me, and this was one of literally thousands of scathing comments...and that's the scary part. I know that I've yelled at the television set before, sincerely believing that the sound of my voice would somehow alter the game. I've played Monday-morning quarterback and torn players apart because of their performance. And after my tweet at Shaq, I realized that I'm not too far removed from posting one of those thoughts online for the world to see. But then I remembered my own life, my own career and I was sobered immediately. I put myself in Sherman's shoes and tears began to well up in my eyes.
I remembered two seasons ago, September 2012. I had gotten called up to the Mets for the last month of the season. After a pretty spectacular MLB debut I had managed to run off 7 consecutive poor performances. Being involved heavily in social media and apparently being a glutton for punishment, I would read some of the comments people were making at/about me on there. Sitting next to my wife and staring down at my phone I began to chuckle. Somebody had written something particularly scathing but had misspelled the key expletive, making the whole thing laughable to me. My wife leaned over and asked what was so funny and I showed her. She read the quote and I could see the emotions begin to rise inside her. She handed the phone back to me and turned away, shoulders slowly moving up and down as the tears began to fall down her face. The regular abuse that I received via social media was one thing. I could handle most of it. The jabbing and jeering. The "You're a f***ing bum!" scrawled across my timeline. But my wife hadn't gotten used to that stuff yet. It's doubtful that she or any of these athletes' loved ones will ever be able to rationalize how people could be so terrible to the men/women they love so much. The athletes and celebrities sitting behind their avatars and profile pictures are real people with real families. They aren't virtual dart boards meant to be peppered with hurtful words every time they fail to live up to the fans' standards.
There are few people who have as high a regard for the First Amendment freedom of speech as I do. I love the fact that, as Americans, we have the right to say (limited only by the scope of the other innate freedoms) whatever we want. There is no one taking away our computers or censoring the Internet without our approval. People aren't being killed in the street daily over waving a protest banner. We have as much freedom with our words as any people have ever had in the history of the world. But that still doesn't mean that we are free from the consequences of those words. Yes, Richard Sherman made kind of an ass out of himself. Perhaps he lost some respect from his teammates, his fans and the organizational front office. Perhaps he is paying for those words with endorsement deal cuts or with an NFL sanctioned fine. His words aren't without consequence. But I urge you (and myself as well) to remember that your words aren't without consequence either. Every time you type or say a hurtful word from behind a computer screen remember that there is very likely a wife, mother or child reading what you've said. Very likely, they don't see the person you're slandering the same way you do. And very likely, these wayward words that mean nothing to you mean the world to them.
I say these things from personal experience and I say them as a man still tending to the wounds me and my family are trying to heal. Think before you speak. Think before you type. And think about what you want your words to say about you as a person. In them are the power to wound and the power to encourage life. Which will you chose?
"Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit." - Proverbs 18:21 (NASV)