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ELON MUSK AND UNHINGED SPORTS TWITTER: HEAVEN HELP US ALL
As athletes strike back against fans who overgamble and overimbibe, the last thing an agitated industry needs is a social media platform without boundaries — an urgent concern for leagues and teams
You didn’t need Elon Musk taking a hit from his vape pen, yawning from boredom and using $44 billion in pocket change to buy Twitter. The sports world already was a wildfire of toxicity. Ever think a Cleveland outfielder, Myles Straw, would climb Yankee Stadium’s chain-link fence like Spider-Man to confront hecklers before dodging bottles in a near-riot?
How many Americans are gambling their lives into neurotic disarray? How many fools think pandemic angst gives them license to slur athletes and throw debris at them in stadiums and arenas? How many athletes are retaliating? When did sports become a series of gang wars?
Our fun and games, intended traditionally as a diversion, have become noxious and dangerous. Now we have Musk, the self-avowed “free speech absolutist,’’ leaping headlong into the hatred pot, angling to turn his new social media toy into an even creepier cesspool. He isn’t much of a sports guy, more driven to posit Twitter as “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,’’ as he wrote in announcing the deal this week. But he should consider the impact of a feral, unmonitored platform on a sports industry running amok — and one still parked in the volatile intersection of race, gender, class and a rapidly changing culture.
Can you say Molotov cocktail?
I don’t have enough room in this space to list all the online confrontations that have poisoned sports in the 21st century. Without any gatekeepers at Twitter, heaven help us. What stops fans/gamblers from routinely making death threats when an athlete or team lets them down? What stops athletes from using Twitter as a weapon against opponents? Think of the secrets to be spilled, the lies to be told, the family members to be smeared, the house locations to be targeted. Just imagine the heightened levels of abuse — fans vs. fans, fans vs. sports figures, men vs. women — if the network no longer bans users who engage in “sexual harassment, group harassment, insults or name calling, posting private info, threatening to expose private info, violent threats, celebration of violent acts" and other violations.
Sports Twitter will plunge into anarchy. The NBA office, for one, will need 24/7 oversight for Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and the league’s numerous digital dunderheads. Job One for every pro league and college conference should be the drafting of a legal strategy that requires everyone in-house — athletes, coaches, support staffers — to obey a code of Twitter conduct. Freedom of speech is a liberating privilege of American life when exercised responsibly. When it devolves into a perpetual gutter that dominates the daily news grind, a robust challenge must be mounted.
As it is, the industry is living on the edge of a tragedy. A day doesn’t pass without another incident, which begs a potent question: For all the billions pouring through sports, why not increased security in the venues? Teams and leagues never react until after the episodes, even as visions of Malice at the Palace and other such mayhem serve as cautionary tales. How do the New York Yankees, the most valuable franchise on Planet Sport at $6.92 billion, let troublemakers in the right-field bleachers become so crude and rowdy that the Guardians’ outfielders had to guard each other Saturday? The goons mocked left fielder Steven Kwan as he was treated by a trainer after crashing into the wall. That led right fielder Oscar Mercado to point out the miscreants, which prompted Straw to scale the fence in an apocalyptic scene for the times. Again, where were security guards in the House That Rude Built? Why were fans allowed to hurl bottles, cans and debris at the Cleveland players? How awful that Aaron Judge, who’d been celebrating a 6-5 walk-off victory, was forced to interrupt the Bronx bash by rushing to right-center field with teammates to plead for peace.
“Brutal,’’ Straw said. “Worst fan base on the planet.’’
“I don't think people can throw stuff at our players on the field,” manager Terry Francona said. “That's never going to be OK.”
Next day, the a-holes were back, with guards positoned at the bottom of each right-field aisle. They still managed to heckle Straw for his Spider-Man act, chanting, “Peter Parker!’’ These are the sort of losers who rush home to chide athletes on Twitter. Musk’s Twitter now will allow verbal assaults.
The incident was sandwiched between other conflicts between fans and athletes. Chicago shortstop Tim Anderson, mocked by Cleveland fans after committing three errors in a 11-1 White Sox loss, flipped a middle finger at the crowd. He likely was inspired by the prince of petulance, Kyrie Irving, who twice shot the bird at Boston fans now laughing after the Celtics swept the dysfunctional Brooklyn Nets out of the NBA playoffs.
Then came the commotion in Milwaukee, where a Brewers fan behind home plate taunted San Francisco’s Joc Pederson with high decibels. Rather than ignore the noise, he stepped out of the batter’s box, stared down the loudmouth, then hit a 435-foot home run to dead center that pushed the Giants toward a 4-2 victory. As he stared into the stands, Pederson tossed his bat and pounded his chest twice.
“Do that again, f—king p—y,” the triumphant slugger shouted.
Oh, and did I mention three intrusions by animal rights protesters focused on the same target: Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor? On April 13, an activist glued herself to the court — would I make this up? — during the second quarter of a Timberwolves play-in game. Three days later, a woman chained herself to a basket stanchion in Memphis during Game 1 of the Wolves-Grizzlies series. Last weekend in Minnesota, a woman wearing an NBA referee jersey wandered onto the court as teams contested a rebound.
Um, where were the security guards? Didn’t they detect a pattern?
The problem, of course, is that the leagues and franchises are so busy counting profits and catering to gambling interests that they’ve minimized the importance of security and safety. If they can’t protect human bodies, why would they make time to regulate Elon Musk’s Sports Twitter?
“The extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all,” he tweeted Tuesday, showing no interest in boundaries.
If nothing else, we can use tweets to assail sports people who enable this 280-character mayhem. Somewhere, lost in the unchecked animus, we still might pay attention to a game or two.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.