At no time in the history of sports have fans been able to interact so freely and easily with professional athletes.
The tangible barricade that once kept the two separate has been mostly eliminated by the invention of social media, and in particular, Twitter. The online social networking site services numerous athletes, allowing fans to see personal posts, ask questions or simply attempt to connect with their favorite players in 140-character messages.
In this modern age, Twitter gives fans the opportunity to know and interact with athletes on a much deeper level than every before.
However, that freedom of relation comes with a very dark and ugly side.
There's a certain anonymity to composing a "tweet" to another user, including athletes. There's no personal relation in this language transaction; just one side given the complete freedom to say whatever they'd like, to whoever they'd like.
In some scenarios, this unprecedented access allows for honest and inspiring conversation between fans and athletes. In others, it provides an avenue for hate and vitriol on terrifying levels.
Unfortunately, a number of NFL players have had to deal with the darkest and ugliest social media has to offer, especially over the last 12 months or so.
Why do these exchanges happen?
By diving into these extraordinary tales of hatred, it's possible we can better understand the problem that is quickly forming between the NFL and social media.
Maybe the most well known and heart-wrenching of the Twitter stories comes from Kyle Williams, a wide receiver and returner for the San Francisco 49ers.
While the 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl in 2012-13, Williams might have cost San Francisco a chance to get there last season. The young returner muffed two punts in the NFC Championship Game, including one in overtime, and the New York Giants advanced past the 49ers and into Super Bowl XLVI.
Shortly after, angry fans took to Twitter to vent their frustration. Some took direct aim at Williams. The results weren't pretty.
One tweet, addressed directly to Williams' account (@Kyle_Williams10), wished death among Williams and his family, and finished with "you deserve it."
Another hoped 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh would give Williams an exploding game ball for his efforts. Both tweets have since been deleted, but their Internet footprint remains.
Earlier in the same postseason, Twitter went on the attack of Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley. The Giants also beat the Packers, in part because Finley dropped a key pass late in the game.
According to Mike Freeman of CBS Sports, some fans went after both Finley and his wife, Courtney, via Twitter. Another fan blamed the loss on offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, whose son tragically died during the two-week lead up to the Divisional Round.
This season, the reactions on Twitter heated up in both intensity and vile.
In September, Washington Redskins wide receiver Josh Morgan committed a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in a game against the St. Louis Rams. The 15 yards cost the Redskins a chance to tie the game, and Washington lost on the road by three.
Afterwards, Morgan became the second coming of Williams.
According to the Washington Post, Twitter wasn't at all kind to Morgan in the aftermath of the loss.
In profanity-laced messages on Twitter, people threatened to kill Morgan, urged him to kill himself and wished harm on his family members. One message expressed the hope that someone would throw a football at Morgan’s first-born child.
Days later, Twitter had one of its darkest ever moments.
In a tragic sequence, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith found out just hours before a Sunday night game that his younger brother had been killed in a motorcycle accident. Somehow, Smith mustered the strength to play through the pain, catching two touchdowns and totaling 127 receiving yards in a Ravens' win over the New England Patriots.
Instead of respecting Smith's heroic performance in the face of adversity, one fan went to Twitter to mock the death of his brother.
"Hey, Smith, how about you call your bro and tell him about your wi--- ohhhh. Wait. #TooSoon?"
Few things ever wrote over social media have ever been as callous, heartless or disrespectful.
According to Smith, this tweet was just one of many.
Played a lot of games since my brothers death and I never received as many rude tweets after a win than Sunday...yet NE fans cry about class— Torrey Smith (@TorreySmithWR) January 22, 2013
One could assume that such a distasteful act would help deter others from repeating the obvious mistake. Sadly, that wasn't the case.
In December, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez threw four interceptions and fumbled on the offense's final drive as the Jets fell to the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football. New York would bench Sanchez for the next week, but Twitter wanted to take the situation to another level.
Like Williams, Finley and Smith before him, social media went on the attack.
One Twitter user sent direct messages to USA Today that went well beyond what anyone could have imagined.
According to Mike Garafolo of USA Today, these words were sent to his outlet's Twitter account about Sanchez:
"DON'T COME TO PRACTICE WEDNESDAY I PROMISE YOU BULLETS EVERYWHERE ... SANCHEZ BETTER HAVE ARMED SECURITY WEDNESDAY AT PRACTICE!! YOU THINK IMMA SIT HERE & WATCH THIS (expletive)?? TUHHH"
The NFL looked into the threats, and the user eventually deleted the messages and apologized.
Just days later, 49ers kicker David Akers was forced to delete his Twitter account because of similar death threats.
Akers, who missed more kicks than any other kicker in the NFL in 2012-13, received the hateful mentions during a run of struggles in December.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee documented the worst of the bunch:
"@RIP_FreeLaddin YOU F----OT IF YOU MISS ONE MORE FIELD GOAL YOU ABOUT TO GET YOUR ENTIRE LIFE ENDED."
Shortly after retweeting that message, Akers disabled his account.
The worst part of the entire deal? These are just the reported, widely-publicized instances of abuse towards athletes over social media. More than likely, every athlete on Twitter has a story or two (or more) of threatening and distasteful fans following a bad performance or loss.
Clearly, such behavior has roots in the passion of the sport.
One of the many positives of the NFL is its passionate fan base. A vast percentage are diehard followers, which certainly helps to drive the billion-dollar business the NFL has become.
Is vitriol and hatred over social media a problem for the NFL?
But such passion also leads to these ridiculous side effects, especially on social media. Some fans are so emotionally attached to one team that a tough loss or season-ending defeat can drastically alter the otherwise rational decision-making process.
The results are almost too predictable.
When anger is mixed with an easy platform to express that anger, we get the kind of explosive and callous comments that have seemed to grow in number over the last 12 months or so. That increase is easy to understand when you realize just how painless it is to type a hateful 140-character message and press send; many times from the comfort of a living room coach, and most times without any kind of repercussion.
For the most part, social media is an asset for the sporting world, and it can be a valuable tool for athletes to interact with fans and grow a brand.
But when pure emotion is combined with such easy access, the ugly and dark side of social media comes to the forefront. It's a problem without many answers, but a very real problem nonetheless.