This story originally appeared in the December 9 issue of Sports Illustrated.
In the hot wet days of August, the literary community suffered three wrenching losses. Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet and Nobel laureate, and Elmore Leonard, the American master of gritty crime fiction, both died. And distinguished man of letters Larry Wayne Jones Jr.—better known as Chipper—published his final microblog communique: "No more twitter for me. Said I'd do it for one year and the time is up. Too much hate and too many trolls. Much love to Braves country! Xo."
Back in July 2012, Jones had jubilantly tweeted, "Hello all! Yes, the ol man finally got the twitta!" The Atlanta icon seemed to delight in the social-media platform's possibilities, peppering his commentary on the Braves' season with heretofore undiscovered locker room language ("yicketty," "mammo"), insight ("I will not watch a game, any game, officiated by Angel Hernandez! His incompetence amazes me, and I'm tired of MLB doing squat about it!") and the occasional koan ("Isn't getting great, great, great news, just the best thing ever??? I'm sooooooooo happy!"). There were squabbles, sure, but "too much hate"? Wasn't he just sooooooooo happy? What changed?
Right, those "trolls." To hell with them.
To hell with @mike50591, a 22-year-old Mets fan from New York, who set Jones off one night in July. Jones had just tweeted praise for a game-saving catch by former teammate Jason Heyward. The fan, who already despised Jones for his years of triumph against the Amazins, needed to blow off steam. "Go back to hooters you fat f---," he tweeted, jabbing Jones about the affair with a fast-food waitress that broke up his marriage and referring to photos of the third baseman looking doughy.
@Mike50591 didn't expect a response, but he got one. His Twitter avatar, you see, was a photo of Abby, his Golden Retriever, licking his face. It seems like a good choice. Who doesn't love a dog photo?
Jones. He shot back:
Within minutes a gaggle of Braves fans had Jones's back. Jones soon blocked Mike, who would no longer have access to the former All-Star's running commentary. Justice, after a fashion. The young man looks back on the night and laughs, thrilled he was able to get a rise out of the future Hall of Famer. "I was just trolling," he says.
"Troll" means a lot more than it used to. Since the early 1990s, to troll has meant to spew disingenuousness to get a rise out of a reader, especially online. As the web burgeoned, trolling became a catchall, even in the material world. Anyone lazy but opinionated? A troll. Anyone who said something that someone lazy but opinionated would say? Also a troll.
Twitter has a lot to do with the troll's rise. Ponder for a moment how much lazy opinion spills forth from the world's mouths and fingertips. And then recall that all sports fandom sounds an awful lot like lazy opinion. We're all trolls—and we have access: Thoughts which once would have had the staying power of burps now sit in an athlete's Twitter queue forever.
The best trolls really do just burp 'em out. Here, to wit, are some choice insights shared with Packers kick returner Jeremy Ross after he fumbled against the Bengals on Sept. 22:
"if you tore your acl i would not care"
"you are actually ruining the team week after week"
Ross did not reply, presumably because he had bigger problems: The Pack cut him after the game. (Two weeks later he signed with the Lions.)
Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick doesn't respond to his antagonists either. His Twitter feed broadcasts the enthusiastic celebrity banality that gave the social network an early bad rap. But Kaepernick's got a secret. He doesn't ignore the trolls. He favorites their Tweets, bookmarking them for posterity. After a recent loss to the Colts, Kaepernick favorited a handful:
He won't, however, explain what saving the tweets means to him. "It's something that I do for me," he told the assembled press after a September practice.
A digital bulletin board makes sense. But Kaepernick's collection hardly resembles the unflattering words of a rival player or coach or a blowhard columnist. The user who told him Alex Smith was the better quarterback? He's a young gentleman who is posing in a classroom in his avatar. He has 175 followers. These are the people Kaepernick endeavors to prove wrong? They haven't even sprouted facial hair yet.
This is another truism of the troll phenomenon—athletes end up glorifying their lightweight opponents. Try to find a moral in the story of @Matthoagie, a 29-year-old Penguins fan, who had tweeted endlessly and nastily at Coyotes enforcer (and popular Twitter persona) Paul (BizNasty) Bissonnette. (This troll especially enjoyed "your mom" jokes.) In August, Bissonnette finally retweeted him, with a bit of bile: "Why u troll me everyday @MattHoagie? Would u call me scum 2 my face? No. U'd b sending that Tip Top Tailor suit 2 the dry cleaners." @Matthoagie tweeted, with some glee, about all the Twitter attention he was getting. BizNasty, with his 450,000 followers, had finally acknowledged him.
Then, as Bissonnette tells it, someone passed along a link to a news report about the troll, who goes by Matt Hogue when he's not on Twitter. Hogue had been fired from his job with the Pittsburgh city council after he stole $10,000 worth of chain saws and tried to blame his bad neighborhood. Bissonette posted the link—"I thought it was funny; I guess you'd say it was karma, too"—and Hogue, for a spell, deleted his account.
The confronting of a troll tends to carry with it a whiff of ineffable sadness. Trolls don't have sparkling lives. Bissonette says, "On Twitter, you get a lot from 40-year-old guys who never made it anywhere. They want to go beat their dogs, but they don't even have dogs. So they tweet."
But some pros are looking for a foil. After a six-over-par final day in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill—in which he slipped from seventh to 33rd—former world No. 1 Lee Westwood let his Twitter followers have it. They had been dishing it out all day. Bolstered by drink ("I've had lots!") and sleep deprivation, the Englishman dared the trolls to come after him:
He talked trash about his money, about Colin Montgomerie ("Who?") and about Queens Park Rangers midfielder Joey Barton ("You need to run a bit of fat off!"). He closed the thing with a bit of poetry:
Six hours later an apology ("to my sponsors and true followers") turned up. Then he went silent for six days. The trolls took that round.
Even teams have gotten in on the act. @LAKings danced on the Canucks' grave after a first-round upset in 2012. The Stars dissed their Dallas neighbors, the Cowboys, after an antihockey tweet:
It all feels a bit sinister, megamillion-dollar entities carrying on as though they were human, inspired or abetted by a platform that, at bottom, functions primarily as a data-mining project for advertisers.
But it's fun, too. Twitter feels a lot like Bachelors III, Joe Namath's old New York City haunt, where he and all his buddies would congregate with the masses. There's an athlete cracking wise! There's one flirting with a blonde! Look, over there, the linebacker's still taking that missed tackle too seriously. In the post--Broadway Joe age, sky-high player salaries—and the correspondingly greater cost of screwing up in public—conspired to keep fans and athletes separate. Twitter hasn't yet torn down that wall, but it's bored some pretty big holes. The trolls are just the cost of doing business—the folks who try to ruin a good night out. At least they're a riot to watch.
Hey, maybe there's hope for them yet. L.J. Hoes, an outfielder for the Astros (already indignity enough), recently endured one of many jokes about his last name, from @gracieefreeman. Hoes retweeted her, and his followers gave her hell.
"Now u know how it feels to get made fun of," Hoes tweeted. "I'm still human. I have feelings just like you. I was just blessed to be able to play a sport good."
Replied @gracieefreeman, "I'm sorry ok? I love baseball and the last thing I want is for a player to dislike me."