• Nathan Max

Athletes Don't Deserve Online Abuse

Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images. Ohio State sophomore E.J. Liddell is the latest victim of social media hate.

What is wrong with these people?

In the hours following Ohio State’s stunning 75-72 overtime loss to 15th-seeded Oral Roberts in Friday’s first round of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, Buckeyes’ forward E.J. Liddell began receiving a torrent of vile messages on his Twitter feed. His transgression? He missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 35 seconds remaining in regulation.

Other than that, Liddell played a terrific game, scoring a team-high 23 points and grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds. Even with that missed free throw, Ohio State still led and could have won in regulation or overtime. He was hardly singularly responsible for Ohio State’s defeat, although that shouldn't make a difference in whether a 20-year-old unpaid college student is subjected to a series of threats and hateful messages on anti-social media.

“Honestly, what did I do to deserve this? I’m human,” Liddell responded on Twitter, while posting a screenshot of comments that called the sophomore a disgrace and compared him to excrement. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.

Overzealous fans abusing athletes for blowing it in big moments, sadly, is nothing new. What is new is the access these fans have to those athletes through Twitter, Instagram and other popular social media outlets. Now, throw the national expansion of legalized sports gambling into the mix, and you have a recipe for some truly unhinged behavior.

We are seeing more and more of it.

Earlier this month, sports gambler Benjamin “Parlay” Patz pleaded guilty to federal charges of sending violent threats to professional and collegiate athletes -- and their families, in some cases -- over losing bets. Authorities said Patz threatened a wide range of athletes, from MLB and NFL players to college athletes and women’s soccer players on the Swedish National Team.

The Patz case was particularly egregious. Using mostly burner accounts, but occasionally his personal account, the 24-year-old Californian went as far as threatening to behead athletes and break into their homes, according to the feds. Patz could spend up to five years in prison, the Associated Press reported.

Sending athletes hateful messages for making mistakes and failing to win is morally reprehensible. Threatening violence against them is criminal and deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

But what about the others? Harassment is against Twitter’s notoriously unevenly enforced rules, so these kinds of messages should be immediately reported, at minimum.

It isn’t illegal to be offensive on social media. If it were, the entire industry would be abolished. However, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. Anyone who launches the type of vile attacks that E.J. Liddell endured this weekend should be named, shamed and left to deal with whatever repercussions result.

This behavior is beyond unacceptable, and it goes on far more than what is publicly acknowledged. Most athletes who receive this kind of hate ignore it or keep it to themselves.

Targeting unpaid amateurs for their nationally televised labor -- labor that is generating millions for others -- is particularly loathsome. It’s not like E.J. Liddell wanted to miss that critical free throw late in Friday’s game. If Liddell is like many others, he will carry that unfortunate moment with him, and play it over in his head, for years.

Liddell and other athletes did nothing to deserve the antipathy that is being sent their way. Losing and making mistakes is part of sports and a bitter one at that. Everyone makes errors, and every basketball player has missed a free throw in the final minute of a tight game.

It’s long past time fans and gamblers learn how to handle defeat with as much class and dignity as the vast majority of athletes do.