It's time for the NFL, players and law enforcement to start taking Twitter seriously.
New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is the latest player to feel the wrath of big, bad bullies of social media, according to USA Today. San Francisco 49ers kicker David Akers just quit Twitter rather than deal with it any longer. Of course, the most high-profile death-threat incident involved Kyle Williams and a few dropped punts in last season's NFC Championship Game.
The irony here is that football is a game to fans. It's a method of enjoyment. While fans love to pretend they "pay the salaries" of NFL players by buying tickets or watching on TV, many fail to realize that the business of football doesn't need any one (heck, any one million) fan(s) to keep chugging along as a well-oiled machine.
Meanwhile, this isn't a game to players. It's how they support their families and measure their self-worth as men. Interceptions and missed field goals mean way more to players than they ever will to the fans in the "Twittersphere," but while the players get to pick themselves up and try harder the next time, the numbskulls online threaten their safety.
While it may be easy to ignore the issue or to minimize it, let's call a spade a spade here. Death threats are serious business even when being leveled by Internet tough guys. I don't know exactly what level of psychosis it takes to threaten another man's life over a game, but I know exactly where I want anyone with that special brand of insanity—behind bars.
This isn't exactly uncharted territory for law enforcement officials. Earlier this year, Secret Service officers arrested Christopher Castillo for threatening President Barack Obama, after Castillo said he wanted to: "hunt him down and kill him watch the life disappear from his eyes."
It isn't just the president that is protected from this vile cyberbullying. Eric Yee, a 21-year-old former Yale student, was arrested and held on $1 million bail after posting on ESPN.com about how he "wouldn't mind" killing some children over a pair of sneakers.
I bet his parents are proud.
It isn't that I want to make light of these death threats (quite the opposite), but I think it's important that we see these people for who they really are: sad, tragic, anti-social losers who deserve nothing but our scorn and derision.
Making threats in person takes very little in the way of "manhood" and is usually a coward's errand. Whether or not that coward acts on his threat doesn't make him less cowardly; it's usually more about exactly how sick and demented the threatening party is.
Threats online take on another, exponential level of weakness and idiocy.
It's no secret that the back corners and comment sections of the Internet have more trolls than all the mythical bridges of the world combined. Yet, what used to define Internet tough guys more than anything was their anonymity.
Now, with Facebook commenting and the advent of the social age, people are becoming more and more emboldened to let their Internet exploits bleed into their real life. It takes little time to connect the dots with so-and-so Twitter user and a corresponding Facebook profile and realize the guy who is berating someone for missing a block is a CPA who has two beautiful children.
Back to Kyle Williams, for a moment, because the 49ers receiver said something profound when dealing with threats against his life:
True 49ers fans have come to my support although they realize that I made a mistake, just like I realize it. I made a mistake in a key situation, but people realize I've busted my tail all year and I think my teammates realize that, too. Things happen in the game of football and you've got to bounce back from it. You've got to realize that you've made a mistake and own up to it.
See that? That's how a man deals with adversity. He owns up to it, apologizes for his failings and strives to be better the next time around. That kind of thing happens countless times around the NFL every season and will likely never be understood by the craven idiots who would respond to mistakes by threatening another man's life.
Those people aren't true NFL fans. When the game becomes more important than the people playing it—when it becomes more important than decency or decorum—then the line between fanatic and lunatic has been crossed.
Is the person who "loves" an actress so much he's willing to sit outside her window and threaten her safety considered a "fan"? Or, is he labeled a criminal and put away for the safety of himself and everyone around him?
Why, then, shouldn't we treat the social stalking and threatening of athletes in a similar manner? Are we just waiting for one of these morons to act on his sickening words? Or do we, as a culture, believe that athletes' lives are really less important?
In a response to recent events on Twitter, Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio had this to say:
When death threats are made via any of the various low-tech methods, there’s little question a crime has been committed. So why aren’t death threats made by Twitter viewed any differently?
They shouldn’t be. And if/when someone who makes threats like this against a pro athlete is prosecuted, maybe others will think twice before puffing their chests from the protection of their keyboards or phones.
If you or I made a death threat to anyone, let alone a person of notoriety, via cut-out magazine letters, we would be immediately investigated. Why, then, is it less important when people do so over the power of high-speed Internet?
It's past time to change the culture of the intersection between fans and pro athletes. Twitter has taken athletes down from their ivory tower and made them accessible to the true fans who love to watch them play. However, it has also brought them from the intrinsic safety of that tower and made them accessible to the crazed psychopaths who would threaten their safety.
The NFL has the lobbying power to force local, state and federal governments into action. The need is there; it's time for action.
For our part—fans and media alike—it's time to start calling out these tweeting twits for exactly what they are. They are not fans; rather, they are sick individuals who do not deserve be any part of the NFL community that they would also threaten.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.