“The fans in the stadium and the fans on social media were two different kinds. The fans in the stadium always supported me. On social media, if we lost, I was the one who got the blame.”
That was Georginio Wijnaldum, one of Liverpool‘s greatest servants of the 21st century, speaking after he left the club on freedom of contract.
And if you think he’s wrong, then I’m afraid you’re part of the problem.
Just as there are two kinds of Liverpool fan, there are two kinds of football fan. Two kinds of sports fan. Two kinds of person.
At 90min, we’re lucky that most of our audience falls into the category Wijnaldum will forever be appreciative of. People with compassion and respect, who understand that our words carry weight, so we don’t spew them all over social media for effect, just because we can.
But as the popularity of Twitter and Instagram continues to grow, more people are falling into the latter category, who think it’s okay to fire messages of abuse at footballers and athletes just because they didn’t meet your expectations.
In some cases, that stops at just criticising performance and ability. In others, it spills over the top into discrimination. Either way, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the people being subjected to this endless stream of critical abuse are reading it, and it’s having a real impact.
Wijnaldum’s comments are one thing, but in recent weeks we’ve heard from gymnast Simone Biles, who felt the wrath of half the internet simply for losing a battle to mental health. Tennis star Naomi Osaka faced similar vitriol when all she did was decide to take a break from press duties. Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka all missed penalties, and were all hung out to dry by certain venomous corners of social media with no regard for how they might have been feeling. Who knows what cricketer Ben Stokes may now face after opting to take a break from cricket.
Importantly, they’re just a few of the higher-profile examples of the type of thing that happens on a daily basis.
When you take it out of the context of sport and social media, you realise just how insane it is. If your service at a restaurant isn’t great, you wouldn’t approach the staff and tell them they’re a ‘f*****g disgrace’, and that it’s all their fault.
If your boss at work had to postpone a meeting because their head wasn’t in the right place, you wouldn’t remind them of their responsibilities – you’d ask them how they were doing, and lay off.
Why should it be any different for athletes and people in the public eye? Because they somehow owe us something through virtue of their profession? Spoiler; they don’t. And the sooner we stop treating them like infallible fictional characters and start behaving like they are actual human beings, the better.
We’re all guilty of expecting more from our idols and role models than we should. We’re allowed to, and we’re allowed to feel disappointed when they fall short of that. The dividing line, as Wijnaldum alludes to, is drawn between those of us who know how to voice that responsibly, and those who don’t really care.
Just be nice and be reasonable. Because if we’re not, then the next generation of Wijnaldum, Biles, Osaka, Rashford, Sancho and Saka might not even bother.
And then what would be the point?