Behind the Screen: How Social Media Humanizes Athletes

As fans, we have very high—sometimes impossible—expectations of athletes. How does social media humanize these individuals?

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This is the first part of a series examining changing perceptions of athletes.

Let’s face it—being a sports fan can give us an excuse to be irrational. Sports fans have a tendency to catastrophize, particularly by viewing events in the “boom or bust” mindset. Players and teams are good or bad. Teams win or lose, they are successes or failures.

Because of this, we often apply blanket terms to sports and athletes.

However, increased accessibility via social media to athletes, teams, and organizations, have given us a unique opportunity to find nuance in sports that wasn’t there before. This accessibility through social media allows us to remove blanket terms and view professional athletes in a more holistic manner.

The pedestal that we hold athletes upon is often one that is unforgiving, harsh and lacking empathy. And yet, when athletes succeed, we celebrate with all our hearts these individuals and their respective teams.

The pedestal that we hold athletes upon is often one that is unforgiving, harsh and lacking empathy.

We criticize, berate, scream and sulk in defeat and failure. As fans, we have very high—sometimes impossible—expectations. When they are not reached, we sum it up as a failure. These expectations are often derived from the expectation for near perfection.

Often, we view athletes this way too, neglecting any notion that they are complete persons. As I sat on my couch on Sunday, watching the Chicago Bears play the Philadelphia Eagles, I noticed how NBC was pointing out Chicago Bears kicker, Cody Parkey, and his missed field goals throughout the season.

For a moment, I envisioned my mistakes being broadcast to millions of viewers.

I quickly directed my attention back to the game as Parkey double “doinked” a potential game-winning kick off the uprights. Incredible, his 5th one of the seasons.

As Cody jogged off the field and I heard the bellowing boos from the Chicago faithful, it struck me. Fame and fortune do not grant immunity to shame, embarrassment and humiliation. Based on fan reactions, I imagine this is an often-forgotten piece of fandom. I was simultaneously scrolling through Cody’s Twitter bio and remembered what we so often ignore. Cody, is in fact, more than an athlete.

Fame and fortune do not grant immunity to shame, embarrassment and humiliation.

Perusing his Twitter gave me an opportunity to view Cody through a greater lens. There are pictures of him at Halloween parties, with his family attending sporting events and playing with his dog. We can begin to discern that football is his job and not who he is as a person.

Yes, Cody missed an extremely important field goal in front of a national audience. But, to insult his character, work ethic and value it too much of an automatic reaction. You might even say an irrational reaction.

The general message around Parkey’s missed field goal was that he was “robbing” the Bears, because of his compensation and inability to perform at a crucial moment. There is validity to this critique—Cody is held to a high standard because of his accomplishments and ability.

Unfortunately, Cody is a perfect example of how we over-generalize critiquing professionals.

The assumptions about his character or intent based off a missed kick are making a connection that isn’t there. His inability to perform when his team needed him most was viewed as a reflection of who he was as a person, rather than a failed play.  

It is important to acknowledge the not-so-subtle differences between criticizing an action and belittling a person.

Athletes such as Cody, live in fame and fortune or infamy based on their athletic achievements with little nuance or subtly to their legacy. However, there has been an important shift in the way that we view athletes. Athletes have begun to have a greater presence outside of sports.

It is important to acknowledge the not-so-subtle differences between criticizing an action and belittling a person.

By just reviewing his Twitter I was able to gain access to a more holistic version of Parkey. This is an important shift not only in consumption of sports but how we view and treat the people who entertain us.

Each month we will review ways that technology and social media give us the opportunity to view athletes in a more holistic light.  We have been given access to athletes and professionals that we have not had before. We can go on Twitter or Instagram and tag or tweet directly to athletes.

Moreover, it is important that we allow ourselves to see athletes for what they are: people.

As we begin to expand our view of professional athletes, we will examine our unprecedented access through social media, athlete representation, athlete identity and ways to encourage a comprehensive view of athletes.

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