The emergence of social media has enhanced the hockey-watching experience for many fans and media, but it’s also spawned the worst element of the sports (and for that matter, the internet) world: namely, the anonymous cowards who get their pathetic kicks hurling abuse at those with whom they take issue.
For some – pro athletes, public figures, opinion columnists – harsh criticism is to be expected: people have every right to be passionate about something that piques their interest, and so long as they engage in a respectful, healthy debate, they should be engaged with. But there are still some boundaries you don’t get to cross just because you have an online connection and a rudimentary grasp of the written word. And we’re still seeing too many people cross it in the hockey community.
Last week, some drooling goober thought he was justified in sending a repugnant Tweet to former NHLer and current analyst Jeff O’Neill that mentioned O’Neill’s late brother, Donny. When he saw it, Jeff O’Neill openly pondered not returning to his Twitter account until January (although he’s since reconsidered). And Saturday night, after the Maple Leafs were humiliated by the Buffalo Sabres, the wife of Toronto goalie James Reimer was subjected to a number of reprehensible Tweets from stooges who know how a keyboard works, but not how basic human decency works. Worse still, this wasn’t the first time Reimer’s wife has had to deal with the yammering clods of the internet. In March, she was the target of invective because of her husband’s play on the ice. (I’m not linking to any of the abusive tweets, because the cretins behind them aren’t gaining any notoriety from one of my files.)
It shouldn't have to be said, but apparently, it needs to be: there is no excuse for attacking a player's wife, girlfriend or any family member. None. If you don't know why this is inappropriate, go soak your head for a good, long while, and try figuring it out again on your own. The families of hockey players have no connection to your enjoyment of the game. Any rationalization you have to include them in your hate is fundamentally flawed, as are you as a human being if you're stupid enough to do so.
After seeing this garbage, it’s tempting to sit back and wallow in despair for the future of the species, but we can’t allow the worst of us to drive away the best of us from a medium that can do a lot of positive things. And luckily, there are measures we can take to make Twitter safer and more enjoyable for everyone who loves hockey.
Now, we can’t stop someone from choosing to use their account to spew bile, and it’s unlikely Twitter will require people to use their real names. On some level, we’ll always have to prepare for the worst of people, in much the same way major event planners know their stage may be intruded upon by a streaker no matter how tight security is. But once people reveal themselves to be cretins, that’s where the hockey community has to start being more of a real community and looking out for one another.
To wit: You know that dolt who went after Jeff O’Neill? Apparently, he was well-known among Canucks fans who thought he should’ve been banned long ago. He also had 278 followers, many of who likely were automated spam accounts, but there were quite a few regular fans who followed him. By doing so, those people tacitly supported him. Sorry, but that’s not cool.
That’s the first easy way the good people of the hockey world can clean up the sport’s social media environment: stop following abusive accounts. The fewer people who’ve signed up to have inhumane garbage polluting their Twitter feed, the better. You might be the world’s most fervent Canucks fan, but if you’re adding to the attention given to ogres by following and interacting with them, you’re doing at least as much harm as good.
Even if you don’t follow them, you can register your disgust with one of Twitter's many wretches by blocking and reporting them. There’s an easy form to fill out, and the system does work: within an hour of me sending out a Tweet requesting that people block and report the goof who offended O’Neill, the offensive account in question had been suspended. But it took a bunch of people to make the effort to get it done.
This is what all Twitter users need to bear in mind about the platform: it’s not so much a wide-open field of rolling hills for us to run through and express ourselves as it is an urban garden of ideas that must be weeded regularly or be overrun by the unsightly plants. That’s what Twitter trolls are: human poison ivy that cannot be allowed to take root. They’re the racist fans who attacked P.K. Subban; they’re the lowlifes who abused the young woman who revealed offensive and misogynist messages from OHL players earlier this month. And they don’t deserve a place at the discussion table simply because they’re hockey fans. If they can’t discuss and debate like an adult, the real adults shouldn’t be forced to listen.
We’ll never make Twitter perfect, but if we want to make Twitter as welcoming as possible for the good people among us and keep the likes of Jeff O’Neill and April Reimer participating in the community, we need to work a little bit harder at getting the bad ones out.