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Twitter fans flames of spectators' anger

“You are awful," the first tweet reads.

"I hate you," the second tweet says.

And it only gets worse from there.

If you want a good sense of how today's fans handle losing — live, in real time, with the anonymity and freedom of online social media — do a Twitter search for @danbailey95, the Twitter handle for the Cowboys kicker who missed a 51-yard field goal Sunday in the final seconds of a 31-29 loss to Baltimore. In the seconds and minutes that followed, you'll see more than 100 messages directed at Bailey, many utterly unprintable.

There are messages of encouragement — Bailey identifies himself on his Twitter profile as "Christ-follower, placekicker for the Dallas Cowboys" — but to find those, he'd have to sift through a nasty wave of online venom.

"I hope you get testicular cancer you useless scrub," one reads. Five people asked Bailey to "go kill yourself," mixed in with 20-plus Tweets bearing F-bombs, including one that piled 13 into Twitter's 140-character limit.

In a living room, the loudest, foulest comments after a last-second missed field goal might not even be heard by a neighbor. In the upper deck, the most indecent things a fan can shout are likely drowned out by the deafening chorus of boos and cheers all around. But on Twitter, a comment from an angry fan venting immediately after a disappointing loss can still be read hours or days later by the subject of his fury, and it's usually not pretty.

"It's what we call blasting," said Rick Grieve, a professor in the Psychology Department at Western Kentucky who is part of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. "They take out their frustration or anger on other people, whether that's the referees, other fans, even the other team. Social media just enhances that, and lets them go much further than they would normally."

Few comments are off limits for fans in such an emotionally detached forum.

Last month, when former USF safety Jerrell Young predicted a lopsided Bulls victory over Nevada, a fan responded by asking if his brother was going to the game. That's a cruel reference to his brother Mario, who was shot in his car in an attempted robbery when Young was 7 years old; Mario died six years later after a difficult struggle. Young brushed off the comment, saying he was thick-skinned, but it showed the level of hate that can be typed so easily.

When USF lost to Rutgers five days later, one Bulls fan — who after the Nevada win had tweeted the same message, "Thank you! Go Bulls!!!" to more than 30 USF players and coaches — had a different message. "You sould (sic) all kill yourself after that performance tonight," he wrote to coach Skip Holtz. The next day, after the sting of the loss had worn off, he tweeted: "Sorry for comments last night. Deleting account shortly. Never been more ashamed of myself."

The idea of "hate tweets" was lampooned last month by ESPNU's Unite late-night show, with a video showing former FSU quarterback and show co-host Danny Kanell lamenting the vile things fans say on Twitter about his TV presence. His wife and daughter read actual tweets about him: "Danny Kanell is still alive?" and "Danny Kanell obviously should NEVER be allowed to talk college football EVER AGAIN!!! EVER!"

Edward Hirt, a professor in Indiana University's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, said this all points to how all forms of communication have different levels of internal filtering — you might say things on the phone you wouldn't say in person, you might write something in a work email you wouldn't say in a business meeting. Twitter, unfortunately, has the informality of texting but is displayed far more publicly and permanently.

"These media have made that more explicit. There may have been people who make those comments personally or to each other watching on TV or in the stands, but it never gets conveyed to the person," Hirt said. "These forums offer opportunities for that to be conveyed to the person."

You could argue that the same angry fans tweeting expletives to athletes might have sat down 20 years ago and hand-written a letter offering the same anatomically impossible suggestions, but the immediacy of Twitter makes it easier, more public and without the time to think twice.

"With a letter, not only do you have to write the dang thing, you have to find the address, then a stamp. Do I really want to do this?" Hirt said. "There's many different levels that at least give you the opportunity to not only cool off, but allow reason to maybe take over and say, 'Is this really worth it?' "

Greg Auman can be reached at auman@tampabay.com and at (813) 226-3346. Follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

Twitter fans flames of spectators' anger 10/16/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 3:16am]
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