For nearly as long as sports have existed, there has, somewhere, been a man bitterly ranting about how a stranger’s poor performance on the playing field has brought shame and misfortune upon him. Given that sports betting has existed at least since the horse races of the 12th century (and likely long beforehand, too), you could argue that hundreds of years of game theory, fandom and strategy have culminated in the 2000s to give us fantasy sports.
And yet, somehow, all that time to refine our collective spirit hasn’t done much to quell the animal ferocity of a fan in heat. It’s incredible to watch the raw joy that spills forth when a minor miracle happens on the field. It’s also pretty horrifying to watch the other extreme: Aching, angry hatred, especially in the context of fantasy sports. I’m pretty sure fantasy football makes me miserable, but I’m also pretty sure I’m less miserable than the guys who take to Twitter to stomp and shout at the players they just rooted for.
Social media has revolutionized the way we communicate with superstar athletes — so much so that, hell, many athletes (cough, Kevin Durant) can’t help but see it as an important stage for their identity. Naturally then, a lot of fans take to Twitter and Instagram to try and talk to the talented men they’ve picked to start in fantasy matchups. There are plenty of gentle, mellow interactions here, but I’m far more fascinated by the psychology of the toxic ones — including the instances of crazed fans threatening to kill wide receiver Calvin Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Brandon Jacobs.
Death threats obviously constitute the deep end of the Twitter-abuse pool, but there’s plenty of room for all sorts of rants. Something you start to notice scrolling through fantasy social media on a Sunday night is that nobody gets yelled at quite like “diva” players — i.e., the ones who, by personality or football position or most likely both, get branded as “selfish” or “me-first.” Perhaps it feels like a win-win for a pissed-off fan (who’s about to lose money) to unleash some anger on a guy who gets paid millions to play with a ball.
For evidence, I checked in on the Twitter replies to young, struggling Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is notorious for his confidence and competitive antics. There was so much negativity that I decided to filter the results to only tweets with the word “bitch”:
Whoof. How about his teammate, Odell Beckham Jr., who’s also been accused of being a giant diva?
Ah, man. What about former Pittsburgh Steelers holdout Le’Veon Bell?
Ouch. Obviously, there’s a lot of pain and yearning here. And so, I wanted to hear from these and other men who had taken time and effort to try and break through to a struggling athlete. Hilariously, various attempts to contact them failed. Apparently, yelling and begging rich, talented strangers on the internet isn’t something a lot of guys want to cop to, let alone unpack. But a friend of mine did sheepishly admit that he once tweeted, then deleted, a multi-post tirade against Tom Brady after a mediocre performance that lost him a fantasy playoff game last year — by 0.85 points.
“Honestly, I was just super pissed off because my season was on the line, and I needed a win. It’s just like, ‘Dude, Mr. GOAT, the most clutch guy to ever play the position — if you were 2 percent less shitty at your day job, maybe I wouldn’t be facing a $250 loss on my end, you know?’ And Brady is so fuckin’ easy to hate,” he tells me. “But I was really embarrassed when you asked about this, because I can’t ever imagine being that upset about it. Did I need an outlet or something? Whatever the case, it made me a little more self-aware in the long run.”
The science of why we have such strong emotional ties to sports is complex, with both cultural conditioning and physiology affecting the way we think in the aftermath of wins and losses. Modern research has found that so-called “mirror” neurons in our brain make us feel like we’re on the turf when we watch a game with intensity. It makes our hormones surge. Cheering for a team or player is directly related to our self-esteem and sense of belonging; it’s escapism through some of the most instinctive expressions of emotion we tap into on a regular basis. So when fans watch their rooting interest lose, we feel it in our core. And when the anger comes, we have no one to blame but the athletes — even if we made the decision to start them on our fantasy teams, we’ve already assumed a certain standard for what they ought to give us.
“Remember, anger is energizing,” says therapist and masculinity expert Andrew Smiler. “And that’s valuable, because when your fight-or-flight response kicks in, you want that surge to get you through the challenge in front of you. The issue is, without an outlet for that energy, it tends to just double down on itself rather than be productive.”
There’s a level of entitlement among fans for how all that cheering and merch sales need to be paid back, and it’s easy to see a presumptuous attitude in a lot of these replies. The crazy part is, the athletes often do see a lot of this — some of them even apologize for lackluster Sundays.
This is crazy to me. Yes, I know that players themselves play fantasy football. But I’m more sympathetic to guys like young Indianapolis wide receiver Zach Pascal, who’s clearly fed up with all the responses from strangers, or vet Richard Sherman, who spoke to the dehumanization of players amid a hobby that’s growing in popularity.
“I think a lot of people, a lot of fans out there have looked at players even less like people because of fantasy football and things like that,” Sherman told ESPN. “You go and say, ‘Oh man, this guy got hurt.’ You’re not thinking, ‘Hey man, this guy got hurt — he’s really physically hurt, and he’s going to take time to recover, and it’s probably going to affect his mental state and his physical state, and now he has a long, rigorous rehab.’ You’re thinking, ‘Oh man, he’s messing up my fantasy team.’”
While I couldn’t find specific research on this, it’s hard to deny that our love of fantasy sports contributes to the slow, steady dehumanization of people into stats. Hell, that’s kind of the point of sports and football especially — we reap tangible rewards for watching breaking bodies. I’m pleased, at least, that when I broached the subject of Twitter rants at athletes on Reddit’s fantasy football group, I got flamed into oblivion for suggesting that anyone on the forum could be that dumb (“If you do that, you’re a douchebag,” one poster concluded).
It also likely doesn’t help anything. That is, negative thoughts affect athletic performance, which means there’s a chance that being kinder to your favorite fantasy starts might actually help them do better (as opposed to, you know, the douchebag alternative). And even if you think that’s a stretch, well, that same negativity is also contributing to your long-term anxiety around watching the games. It’s far easier said than done to try and turn down the discourse between players and fans — it feels like there’s always been a mean streak in competitive sports. But taking a breath and not logging on might just help your morale, and your morals, in your fantasy career — and life.