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Opinion: Let’s do better in 2022, and be kinder to each other in the world of sports

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It’s easy - and even lazy - to act like jerks to athletes. The dehumanization of athletes, through taunts and slurs, takes all of us down. 

Taking the time to think before hitting send on a message or a comment is a common courtesy people today neither seem to have nor understand.

Instead, the consistent spew of hate out on topics or events that seep beyond the edges of their cookie-cutter world has become the norm, an infamous pastime.

There is no remorse for the fact that the person on the receiving end of their fueled spite is just that: A person. Not the Tin-Man from Wizard of Oz, but another human being with a brain and a heart.

Hate speech in athletics at all levels, whether collegiate or professional, is as much of an issue today as it has ever been, especially with the ever-developing of social media, and how programs handle the sensitive subject is runner-up.

Riddle me this: How do you benefit from cyberbullying? What does it get you to be rude to another person online while hidden behind a screen and shadowed by anonymity? Are these sports so important to you that you have to go the extra mile to type out a lengthy, profanity-riddled and dehumanizing message just to feel better?

It doesn’t make you powerful. It makes you pathetic.

According to the Megan Meier Foundation (MMF), approximately 34% of middle and high school students report that they have been cyberbullied in their lifetime and approximately 59% agree that it is a major problem among those their age (11-18).

Over 60% of students who experience cyberbullying report that it has immensely impacted their ability to feel safe while learning and, during the height of the pandemic, MMF found that there was a 70% increase in hate speech during online chats.

While 81% of students reported that others cyberbully because it’s “funny,” nearly 30% of students reported that they end up wanting to seek revenge, which has been cited as leading toward cases of extreme retaliation.

Thankfully, there is a prize feature that the internet has gifted us: The block button. Over 70% of students reported that this is the most effective method of prevention from cyberbullying, but again, it only does so much against the ability to make multiple different accounts under different aliases.

A more recent case of cyberbullying that broke the camel’s back when surfacing the Internet was against Ohio State men’s basketball junior forward E.J. Liddell. Then No. 2-seeded Ohio State had just faced No. 15 Oral Roberts in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament on March 19. The Buckeyes lost, 75-72, in overtime. Not even a day later, Liddell was receiving frightening and threatening Instagram messages riddled with slurs from faceless users.

He posted screenshots to his Twitter account, receiving love and support from other basketball players and fans across the country.

“You so f------ terrible bruh I swear to god I’m a get a f------ hacker so I can find out exactly where you be at so I can smack the s--- out you personally I put that on my LIFE,” one string of messages read.

“You are such a f------ disgrace,” another string read. “Don’t ever show your face at Ohio state. We hate you. I hope you die I really do.”

In the screenshots, it’s evident that when one string seemed to stop, another one started. Timestamps dated back to March 15, where the latter user had been ridiculing him for Ohio State’s 91-88 overtime loss to Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament finals on March 14.

“You f----- loser. You should be embarrassed to even be on Instagram. Shut ur comments off hahahaha,” the earlier string read.

There’s evidence of it starting even well before that, though the messages are not visible in the screenshots.

Programs everywhere should take note of the way that Ohio State handled the incident. The Buckeyes immediately started an investigation into the two disgruntled “fans” and Athletic Director Gene Smith promised police involvement from the get-go, while Coach Chris Holtmann also issued a statement, ESPN had reported.

While Liddell wasn’t fearful of the comments, he did want an explanation at the time.

“Honestly, what did I do to deserve this? I’m human,” Liddell tweeted. “Comments don’t get to me but I just wanna know why. I’ve never done anything to anyone in my life to be approached like this.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2019 that suicide was the 10th leading cause of death among U.S. adults. That same year, there were 47,511 national suicides, accounting to 130.2 per day. Targets of cyberbullying were found to be at a greater risk than others of both self-harm and suicidal tendencies.

Experiences of cyberbullying are also associated with the development of low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, family problems, academic difficulties, delinquency and school violence. The CDC expressed that 1-in-5 youth in the U.S. experienced a serious mental health condition as a result of this topic in 2019, yet only 20% of them received the true help they needed to heal.

Despite the block button, there is only one other and main alternative that is strong enough to protect against being a target of cyberbullying: Positive peer interaction.

Athletes who face the tendencies of cyberbullying have it tough because they have to create and maintain their digital reputation. Who and what they represent when a part of a team is important, but so is their mental health.

The Cyberbullying Research Center found that learning from other’s stories and fostering a culture of wisdom and discretion in their social media posts and related interactions with their teammates, coaches and beyond allowed for easier access when looking to get assistance.

Athletes are human, not a slot in your weekend entertainment schedule, and it’s time we as a collective start treating them with respect.

What you say to someone over the internet may not stick around in your timeline. It may be a momentary outburst fueled by 15 minutes of rage after a tough three-point loss. You will forget and you will move on.

However, it will stick with the person on the receiving end. It will be embedded into their mind, whether they want it to be or not, and it will come around to haunt them every time there’s a moment of peace when they’re doing what they love. They won’t forget.

Like Thumper told Bambi, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

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