Fans express their support and upset in varying forms. Consumption is usually the most pervasive shape, whether it’s attending games or buying jerseys and paraphernalia sporting the clubs’ logos and colours.
For the most part these are friendly and innocent expressions of fandom, but what happens when things get out of hand?
Rio Ferdinand was cut in the face when a supporter in the stands threw a coin at him. Then of course, there’s the racial abuse black players face on a reoccurring basis in the European leagues.
While these sorts of confrontations are despicable, they are often limited to the pitches.
In the past few years, however, a new trend has emerged on the Internet. It’s called athlete cyberbullying.
On Saturday a fan by the name of Don Jannis posted the following on Schalke 04 goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand’s Facebook wall.
“You dumb bastard. Please shoot/kill yourself. You can’t do anything.”
It was a response to die Koenigsblauen 3-0 loss to Nuremberg that day.
Hildebrand said he was shocked and refused to tolerate the insult, which is one reason as to why he made it public. As of today, the post had 3,666 comments and 2,086 likes. Fans are obviously writing messages of support for Hildebrand and condemning the bully.
We can only speculate as to why the fan posted such a cruel message. There is a possibility he wrote the comment in the heat of the moment. He was probably just frustrated at his team’s current dip in performance and merely wanted to vent his anger on social media.
But does that make it acceptable? It’s common for people to retract on their spiteful words, yet harassment is still harassment.
In Germany alone this is a very sensitive topic. Only four years ago the country mourned the suicide of national keeper Robert Enke. Of course Enke didn’t kill himself because he was being bullied, but his death opened up the debate on athletes and mental health as well as the role undue pressure plays in exacerbating an athlete’s condition.
Although it’s only an opinion, words still have impact and can weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of athletes. Imagine waking up to this sort of negativity on a daily basis? And footballers aren’t the only ones derided on social media.
The recent case of Canadian tennis player Rebecca Marino (who has taken a break from the sport), brought the problem to the forefront.
“I was getting some messages saying I should go die, that I should go burn in hell, that I’m a dumbass, that I’m an idiot, that I lost them money.”
Unfortunately, the current environment is conducive to cyberbullying. In a society where communication is moving further away from face to face contact and to a world of anonymity, bullies can hide behind screens and words.
The Toronto Star talked at length about the problem a month ago.
Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles believes the anonymity of social media makes people bold and, in some cases, vicious.
“You hear about bullying, it exists on all levels. It’s not just high school. It’s towards athletes, co-workers, whatever,” he said.
“It’s tough because I think when you have a computer or have a cellphone there’s a lot of anonymity.
“I think people tend to take that to some pretty extreme degrees and that’s the unfortunate part about it.
Have people lost their sanity? Footballers and athletes in general are already under tremendous pressure to perform and succeed. Besides athletes may be blessed with greater physical skills, yet they are still human. Their DNA doesn’t make them immune to ridicule and attack.
Some may argue footballers need to realize the abuse is part of the territory; it comes along with the fame and money. (Unless of course it’s Joey Barton, then the roles are reversed for the most part.)
Luckily, for Don Jannis, Hildebrand has decided not to press charges.
With that in mind, aren’t we as a society sometimes too passionate about the most pettiest of human events? To overreact about a loss is human caprice, but understanding that it’s only a defeat in sport may anchor our perspective. So that the next time our impulses take over let’s remember that there are far more serious issues such as war and poverty that we can direct our efforts and energy towards.