Monday, Jan 31, 2011 11:05 PM UTC

Twitter, the athlete killer

Jay Cutler and LeBron James made it clear: Social media crashes a tsunami of bile onto the jocks

Jay Cutler

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler listens to question during an NFL football news conference at Halas Hall, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011, in Lake Forest, Ill. The Bears are scheduled to host the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game on Sunday, Jan. 23. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) (Credit: AP)

On Howard Kurtz’s “Reliable Sources,” Jason Whitlock announced a new era. In the columnist’s opinion, social media flash mobs are tearing athlete reputations asunder in a manner that scoffs at precedent. Considering what happened to Jay Cutler and LeBron James, I’m buying this theory. For many unfortunate jocks, Twitter converts hatred into a billowing cultural meme.

Though a digital flash mob obviously lacks the menace of a real-life, pitchfork-wielding crowd, it’s still unhealthy for us to collectively foment rage — I think. Our relationship to sports figures is ugly enough: We live through these unknowable phantasms, only to hate them when they let us down. Do we really need another medium for voicing this hatred? Do we really need to amplify that hatred?

So, much as I love Twitter, much as Shaq loves Twitter, the tweet-medium seems awful for athletes, on the balance. Moments that would wither in newspaper or radio snippets, now expand to an emotional, angry frenzy that can define and bully sports figures in the worst ways. Jay Cutler’s knee was really shredded, but the Twitter flash mob likely succeeded in permanently tagging a “quitter” reputation to a man suffering highly human pain.

Twitter isn’t going away any time soon, so rather than wax Luddite, I’d propose something even more radical: Pundits and fans should understand that athletes are, indeed, people. Their fame, their money, none of it is a justification for joining the public invective mob. Shouting from the bleachers was a harmless pastime — the digital bilious strain spreads like an airborne virus. And if social media allows us a greater voice, the cultural norm should trend toward being, well, sociable to these people who — I know this is shocking — actually exist in real life.