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Column: Stop. Threatening. College. Athletes.

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Or any athletes, really. 

Oral Roberts v Ohio State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Sure, it wasn’t a great weekend to be an Ohio State fan. But not for the reasons one might think.

Most (I hope) Ohio State fans were disturbed over the weekend when sophomore forward E.J. Liddell shared a set of threatening messages he received following the Buckeyes’ loss to Oral Roberts in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Because of the serious nature of those threats, I’m going to pile on Matt Tamanini’s column about the dangers of disappointment turning toxic. What these individuals said to Liddell is under no circumstances acceptable. While we are all, as Ohio State fans, disappointed that the season came to an abrupt end with a surprising upset Friday, there is no on-court or on-field scenario that warrants wishing death upon someone.

Fortunately, Chris Holtmann and the university immediately came to Liddell’s aid, vowing to ensure those who threatened the sophomore are held accountable. But the fact remains that someone (two people, actually) thought this was an acceptable way to treat a fellow human.

Bottom line: If you’ve ever thought that violence against others or yourself as a result of a sporting match you didn’t even participate in is the right answer, you are, without question, wrong, and that desire to perpetuate violence is likely the result of other underlying issues.

Let’s take a look at the threats themselves. The first person Liddell shared messages from used racist, sexist AND homophobic slurs in his diatribe. Obviously he (I’m assuming it’s a “he”) has a lot bigger issues, and I’m guessing wouldn’t be very fun at parties.

But the not-so-subtle, offhand racist slurs hide a bigger issue: this person (whom I don’t know) seems to think Liddell and the rest of the Buckeyes exist for his own entertainment. Like he is the kind of his own world and they are the court jesters there to perform for him and him alone. Another word for that sort of expectation or exploitation? Slavery.

Tia Johnston and I discussed this point last summer. We expect college athletes to sacrifice their bodies for our entertainment, which should be disturbing enough when you get down to it, but when some folks take the additional step of threatening actual young adults for not performing to their expectations — that’s another level of psychotic.

The reality is that sports are just not that serious. Sure, there’s a giant industry around sports that, when operating correctly, creates positive financial incentives for many in the ecosystem. Here’s where we again emphasize the point that college athletes do not benefit from these financial incentives.

Upon reading of this text, it’s easy to immediately begin asking what these individuals have at stake that would lead them to such hateful and threatening speech. Folks have logically pointed out, while not defending these people, that they’re probably taking a financial hit from sports betting.

Sure, losing hard earned money would make anyone mad. But it’s called gambling for a reason. My response (and I hope everyone’s else is as well), is that they chose to bet their financial wellbeing on the capacity of 18-22 year olds to make their free throws. I’m not a financial planner, but that seems like a bad investment. Further, is it really right to berate a person who’s playing for nothing because you lost money?

Let’s look back at the actual situation from Friday. There’s no doubt that Chris Holtmann put out his best lineup with the personnel he had available. If there was someone better to put in place of Liddell, he would have played that person. It’s unlikely, because Liddell was the leading scorer for the Buckeyes — this game, and all season. Looking ahead, is anyone doubting that, after a requisite mourning period, Liddell is hitting the gym immediately and working on his free throws for next season?

Additionally, as harsh as it seems, games aren’t won or lost on a single play. Sure, it’s memorable that Liddell missed a critical free throw, but the Buckeyes missed 18 three-pointers in the three-point loss. They missed a collective nine free throws. There were numerous other opportunities to win the game that Ohio State missed.

Oh and for what it’s worth, I highly doubt the people who threatened Liddell could have made free throws with any sort of consistency.

But these threats have other damages. Let’s consider the damage to recruiting from these messages — players won’t want to come and play for a program whose fanbase is so rabid. The perpetrators of these violent statements have delusionally high expectations for the Buckeyes, but seem oblivious to the cultural damage they can incur even without being involved in the program.

On a relative basis, and while it’s not nearly as serious it still should be said, threatening Ohio State players for losing the game diminishes Oral Roberts’ win. Oral Roberts showed up to play Friday, and put together a better plan, hands down, than the Buckeyes did. We need to give credit where credit is due. Ignoring the capabilities of other teams demonstrates the fantasy these “fans” are living in.

So what do you do when you’re mad your team lost and you feel like lashing out?

  1. Don’t. That’s probably the simplest thing to do.
  2. Think before you tweet. Does what you want to say really need to be said? What would family or friends say if these tweets came to light the way those targeted at Liddell did? Would you have confidence you could keep your job if your messages emerged publicly?
  3. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything. As someone who is not a famous athlete, I really don’t know if athletes want people reaching out to say good game or whatever, but those messages have to be more welcome than the death threats that seem to come up so regularly.
  4. Do you know the person? If not, you literally have no reason to be reaching out. The person who’s feeling the worst about E.J. Liddell missing free throws is E.J. Liddell. He doesn’t need anyone else to tell him how to feel.

Let’s bring it home. Ohio State fans have a reputation in the college athletics universe, which is mostly attributable to the football program. In case you’ve never ventured from Columbus to hear those opinions firsthand, it’s not a good reputation. We’re often seen as obsessed, as fanatics, as delusional, as out of touch, as arrogant. I personally know Ohio State fans who have broken bones punching things (fortunately, inanimate objects) following Buckeye losses. It’s not a good look.

Most Ohio State fans I’ve encountered don’t fit the aforementioned stereotype. These stories, however, serve to reinforce the worst aspects of who we are as a fanbase, and they are, unfortunately, loud enough to drown out the good.

We’re better than this. Let’s show it.