Posted December 06, 2013

When Trolls Attack: True Stories of Athletes and Their Online Antagonists

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Illustration by Darrow

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:

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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.)