Yes, you. The diehard sports fan who lives for his teams, reads every magazine/newspaper/website/blog and takes this stuff -- professional and college athletics -- waaaaaaay too seriously?
Did you have a bad day at the office? Is your muffler dragging? Did someone spill Sunny Delight on your Bart Kofoed-autographed Warriors jersey? Is your underwear too tight? Did your wife ask you to watch the kids for a few hours?
Oh, I understand passion. I understand bleeding a team's colors, crying so hard following a loss that your parents wonder whether you need another shot of ketamine. Why, as a 12-year-old I could barely sleep after Marvin Hagler knocked out Tommy Hearns. When the Red Sox had the Mets on the verge of extinction during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, I hid behind my fingers and refused to come out. I've screamed at the television, cursed out the radio, sworn off players who broke my heart and teams that let me down.
Of course, that all stopped when I , ahem, grew up.
How about you? How do you explain the vitriol? The unmitigated cruelty aimed at sports journalists who have the audacity to write/say something you find either insulting or incorrect? When I started at Sports Illustrated in 1996, roughly 200 copies of a "reader comments" packet would be photocopied and distributed throughout the office. A large number of the letters were positive. A slightly smaller total were negative, but in a respectful way. "How dare you say Steve Garvey was the greatest National League first baseman when he played in the same era as Keith Hernandez" or "I really think you guys need to reconsider the Swimsuit Issue." Heck, in February 2000, a couple of weeks after I wrote the infamous profile of John Rocker for the magazine, I received a two-page letter from his mother, Judy. The woman was understandably angry, and she let me know about it. But her note made an unmistakable point ("You're a jerk") without using the actual words ("You're a jerk"). I've never forgotten that.
Now, however, everything has changed. With the wonderful world of e-mail and text messaging annihilating the wide gap between angry thought and pen/paper, irrational fans nationwide can immediately fire off a [FILL IN THE BLANK: Threatening. Insulting. Distasteful.] rant without a moment's pause.
Here, for example, are snippets of two e-mails I've received over the past 24 hours -- neither especially out of the ordinary.
• "You remind me of those guys in the current Miller Lite commercials. One has a lower back tattoo and the other is wearing a thong. My 4-year-old son is more of a man than you. Go drink your green tea."
• "Shut the ---- up you slimy ----! You are using your position to brainwash the ----- in the US to accept illegal aliens that are mostly a bunch of murderers, rapists, & child-molesters."
When I returned to writing for SI.com in 2009 following a six-year hiatus, I told my editor that I wanted to run an e-mail address beneath my columns, so that readers could have their chance to respond. "Are you sure?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied. "It's the right thing to do."
I had no idea.
For some reason, we sportswriters bring out the absolute worst in people. I'd love to think it's just me -- that my work is so heinous readers feel compelled to thrash. But then I asked around. From Jesus Ortiz at the Houston Chronicle to Michael J. Lewis at the Daytona Beach Daily News to Dave Sheinin at the Washington Post, there is universal agreement that things somehow crossed a line. That journalists have gone from dispensers of information to receptacles for venom.
These days, whether a columnist opines on the Lakers dynasty or the Nets putridity, whether he/she tells the story of an athlete overcoming cancer or an athlete rotting in a jail cell, the aftermath is rarely good. When Ortiz wrote a piece on the Mexican national team coming to Texas before the World Cup, he found his mailbox littered with racist e-mails. "Everybody wants to let you know how they feel," Ortiz says. "It seems as if they don't mind expressing their anger." When Lewis penned a handful of local high school girls basketball stories, he received a three-page letter from a player's grandmother. "It was so nasty and no abusive," says Lewis, "that the woman's son sent me a letter apologizing for his mom's note."
With rare exception, the notes are anonymous. And grammatically inept. And some sort of cry for help/loneliness/meaning.
They also happen to be deliciously ironic: While the crazy sports fanatic seems to believe everything that matters in life involves a ball and a watery cup of beer, most writers are just the opposite. We dig sports, embrace sports, devote our lives to covering sports. But come day's end, 99 percent of us are able to step away and, oh, watch a movie. The same goes for players. Yes, Derek Jeter loves the Yankees and wants the Yankees to win and plays his heart out. But does he ream out the reporter who dares ask him a tough question? Never. He moves on, grabs some dinner and heads home after the game for the latest episode of Entourage and a good night's sleep.
Maybe you should, too.