Tuesday, Andrew Wiggins, an 18-year-old kid, announced that he was going to attend the University of Kansas. Wiggins is the No. 1 rated high school basketball player in the country, one of those players who so obviously is only going to be playing one year of college basketball that you wish he would have taken my friend Dan Shanoff's suggestion and just skipped college all together and played in the D-League for a season. (Short version of the reasoning: He could start making shoe contract money, he could hone his game under the tutelage of people training him for the NBA, it would instantly make the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and their mascot Nightmare Ant a hotter ticket than half the teams in the NBA.)
Alas, that trail will have to be blazed by someone else. Wiggins picked Kansas over Florida State (his parents went there) and Kentucky (it's Kentucky), exciting Jayhawks fans about a one-year cameo from a guy who was born the year Raef LaFrentz, Jacque Vaughn and Greg Ostertag were playing. As with every competition, there were losers, and some Florida State and Kentucky fans didn't handle it well. Witness, Extra Mustard's compendium of angry tweets from fans wishing Wiggins would tear his ACL.
As the risk of sounding glib, this has become a thing. Every time something of import happens in the sports world -- which is to say, every day -- it has become a habit to fire up Twitter search and start looking for a--holes. They are not difficult to locate.
(All those links are not safe for humanity.)
The leader of this trend is a site calling Public Shaming, which ostensibly is meant to embarrass people who say horrible things on Twitter. I suspect the site believes it is doing some sort of public service to call out racists and bigots and monsters online so that they, I don't know, will get thrown in Twitter jail or something. But I think it's not helping anything at all. I know there's a cathartic thrill one gets from feeling like they're meting out some sort of Internet Justice. But the practice is problematic for several reasons:
1. You're not fixing anything. Sure, some people delete their tweets after sites call them out, but the notion that they think they've done anything wrong is a specious one. Twitter is a medium that feels private but isn't; this can lead to learning more about people than they'd necessarily want you to learn. Pointing out idiotic tweets doesn't eliminate such thoughts; it pushes them further underground.
2. It excuses less extreme but still offensive thoughts. This is the John Rocker theory. If you'll remember back in 1999, when Rocker made his idiotic comments about New York City's 7 train, the entire sports world descended on him. On one hand, this wasn't a bad thing; he certainly had it coming. On the other hand, painting Rocker as the world's worst racist -- which he wasn't -- allowed him to be the bad guy who served as an easy foil to excuse our own, quieter prejudices. Whenever someone does something blatantly racist or misogynist, or says something particularly stupid, everybody piles on with a little too much glee. It lets us off the hook. Hey, I might think that NBA players have too many tattoos, but I'm not THAT guy. You saw this with Tim Hardaway too. When he said, "I hate gay people … I am homophobic," you could point at him and say you weren't as bad as him, even though you might be against gay rights and not want a gay player in the locker room with you. When we single out the loudest and worst thoughts, it shifts the conversation, skews it, to the point that we're suddenly playing on the other team's field.
3. It's cheap. These posts always get a ton of hits, because they inspire empty outrage and disgust. How can people be so awful? Whammo: You've got a hit blog post on your hands. It's the Web equivalent of a local morning show segment on the mom who kept her kid in the hot car while she went inside to buy beer. Yeah, it's awful. What else you got?
4. It makes the Internet looks worse than it is. This is the big one, for me. Pointing out the worst of the Internet is like singling out an awful random commenter under a Chuck Klosterman column and blaming Klosterman for it. Posts like this make it look like the Web is in fact this terrible place full of terrible people … and I'm sorry, but it's just not. Now, the recency bias will always trick us on this: We see someone online make a horrible comment, and it makes us feel like the online world is cruel and idiotic and mean. But it's just not. The Internet world is not, in fact, any different than the real world because it's made by the same people the real world is. Sure, they might say things online they might not say in real life, but that doesn't make that online speech any more meaningful or representative than a random thought someone has while floating around the earth. There was an old maxim in broadcasting that every negative phone call or letter was representative only of itself, whereas every positive mention stood for 100 silent watchers. The idea was that people tend to only respond and scream when they are angry. That does not mean they are angry all the time. And it does not mean they stand for anyone but themselves. And oftentimes: Not even that. Social media gives fleeting, regrettable thoughts permanence. It does not mean they are actually permanent.
So it's very easy to be outraged by the collection of cretins who want Andrew Wiggins to tear his ACL because he didn't pick their school. But it's not real. They aren't indicative of anything, and they probably don't even mean it. The world is a better place than the Internet at its worst can make it look. Thank God.
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