The slightly different March Madness: Online hate for the athletes

HOUSTON – It wasn’t so much that social media was criticizing his son. That happens sometimes – especially after a loss like this.

But when a post surfaced suggesting leaving Terrance Williams II, a junior forward for Michigan, for dead in a ditch, his father decided enough was enough. Terrance Williams Sr.’s obscene reaction to all the haters was in many ways an expected byproduct of the social media vitriol that bubbled up after the Wolverines gained an eight-point lead in a one-point loss to Vanderbilt earlier this month had blown – not in the NCAA tournament, but in the NIT.

“You actually cheer for them when they’re good,” Williams Sr. said of the Michigan fans in an interview with The Associated Press two days after the season-ending loss. “But then they make a mistake and a game doesn’t go your way and you’re going to hate. This is unacceptable.”

The episode was just one of countless examples of the toxic minefield that athletes, coaches, friends and family all too often face on social media, and all of that intensified for college basketball players as the calendar flips to March and the madness begins.

College administrators and coaches have warned for several years that students and athletes are facing increasing mental health challenges that are being exacerbated by the pandemic. And never have there been more outside voices, not only scrutinizing every move players make on the pitch, but also influencing their emotional well-being off the pitch.

“The feedback right now can be so harsh and immediate, and I think that’s the hardest part,” said Melissa Streno, a Denver-based elite athlete mental health consultant. “It’s the immediacy of feedback from people they don’t even know. And it can affect their identity so much and how they see themselves as players on the pitch.”

PHOTOS: March madness with a difference: Online hate for the athletes

Turning off social media is an option, but not really practical, not with the way society interacts in the 21st century. And many athletes are using social media to open the door to cash. It comes with a toll.

A fall 2021 survey conducted by the NCAA found peak levels of athletes suffering from mental fatigue, anxiety and depression compared to a similar survey two years earlier — before the pandemic and also before deals involving names and pictures became a commonplace reality in college sports . The survey also found that despite the growing recognition of mental health as something that needs to be addressed, less than half of respondents feel comfortable seeking support from an on-campus counselor.

Even so, these counselors were busy; a growing number of questions they are asking from players relate to how they use social media.

“For some of them, social media puts pressure on them to release information, create content, build their brand, and that can trigger anxiety,” said Charron Sumler, a former college basketball player who is now an Ohio State athletic consultant. “On the other side there is the entrance where they receive messages. And with phones in the locker room, sometimes they get that negative feedback and content before they’ve even had a chance to check in with their coaches or with themselves.”

Just this month, Virginia’s Kihei Clark started trending for all the wrong reasons when his ill-advised pass at the end of a first-round March Madness game against Furman allowed the Paladins to make the game-winning 3-pointer that sent the Cavaliers home sent.

After the game, Clark sat in the dressing room and patiently answered every question. Predictably, social media destroyed him before the final buzzer even rang.

Among those who knew the feeling was Matthew Fisher-Davis. He was the Vanderbilt guard who fouled a Northwest player in the dying seconds of a first-round game in 2017 because he thought the Commodores were lagging behind. In fact, Vanderbilt was by a margin; Northwestern made both free throws after the foul and won by a point.

Ahead of the next season, Fisher-Davis released a cleverly produced video showing him training, the main theme of which was “Everybody’s got a say.”

“It gets to the point where the stuff that comes from outside the locker room doesn’t make everything easier,” Fisher-Davis said in an interview with the AP this month.

Stanford’s Haley Jones was named the most outstanding player in the Women’s Final Four after helping the Cardinal win the national title in 2021 WNBA draft – were sometimes gruesomely dissected on social media.

“After every game. I know what I did well and I know what I didn’t do well,” said Jones, who is part of a program called Game 4 Good that focuses on mental well-being for athletes. “I don’t have to go and listen to thousands of people who don’t know me tell me the same things, and probably say it in a much meaner way.”

On rare occasions, players are ripped off for doing good.

In an episode that illustrates the parallel explosive growth of social media and online sports betting, TCU’s Damion Baugh was the object of scorn in the second round this month when he shot the buzzer in a game that had off fired near the half-court logo already sealed by Gonzaga.

Baugh’s 3 went in. It reduced TCU’s final deficit to three, allowing the Horned Frogs to cover the 4.5 point spread. That shot didn’t change the braces, but it did kill millions of dollars across the country and Baugh was flatly ripped on Twitter.

Baugh barked back, “I don’t understand how mad you are because I played until the last buzzer.”

Former Ohio state guard EJ Liddell also felt compelled to defend after missing a late free throw two years ago that was key in an upset loss to Oral Roberts.

“Honestly, what did I do to deserve this? I’m human,” he said in a post in which he shared screenshots of some of the insults directed at him, including a death threat.

Even one of social media’s biggest stars, Oregon’s Sedona Prince, who rose to fame after her video outlining the differences between men’s and women’s weight rooms at the 2021 NCAA tournaments went viral, had to take a brief break from TikTok last year put in

“I’m no different for being on TikTok. I’m still a person,” Prince said in a tearful video since it was taken down, while acknowledging her mental health had deteriorated.

Streno, the mental health counselor, said social media can make depression and anxiety worse.

During a three-month period last spring, at least five collegiate athletes died by suicide. Reasons given by friends and family included constant pressure to perform, pressure to maintain a certain weight or shape, fear of being perceived as weak due to injury, and limited social opportunities due to the demands a sports plan.

Given the amount of daily interactions athletes have with friends and family on social media apps, Streno said it’s more realistic to coach players on how to deal with feedback than to simply advise them to turn everything off.

“If it was as simple as, ‘Don’t look at your phone,’ then that wouldn’t be a problem,” she said. “But there’s such a quick, immediate, ‘Oh, that must mean that about me. I’m not good enough or I don’t live up to that level.’ And then your mind can start descending into that spiral.”

Williams, the Michigan forward’s father, said his son is doing a good job of turning off social media during the season. After the events of that month, the father planned to go dark for a while as well.

“People said he didn’t play well and I understand that.” said Williams. “But when you say, my son, who I raised and love dearly, that you want him dead in a ditch, then I have to flip the switch.”

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