For nearly a decade, social media has helped athletes and sports teams interact with their fans or make major announcements. But according to Mike Naraine, a professor who studies the connection between sports and social media, that relationship evolved in 2018.
Whether it was then-Raptors superstar DeMar DeRozan opening up about his mental-health struggles, former NHLer Daniel Carcillo speaking out on better safety protocols on and off the ice or lawyer Rachael Denhollander blowing the whistle on disgraced USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, current and former athletes used Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to shed light on social issues.
“What we’ve seen is the maturation of what social media can be,” Naraine said. “Athletes are starting to see that the true value of social media isn’t just being able to communicate with your fans, although that is a big part, but giving yourself a voice and providing a voice to what had previously been a dormant or silent giant.
“Now athletes can harness their capacity as a visible figure and that has powerful meaning, not just for an athlete’s personal brand for sponsorships but to advocate for certain issues.”
Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the American national anthem during the NFL’s 2016 preseason to protest police brutality against African-Americans is seen by Naraine as the inspiration for many other athlete-led advocacy movements. Kaepernick is suing the NFL, alleging teams colluded to keep him off a roster after the San Francisco 49ers did not renew the quarterback’s contract.
“Even though the Black Lives Matter movement and Kaepernick’s protest have been happening for two or three years now, that has morphed into some of the newer movements, including #MeToo with some female athletes, and morphed into some of the LGBT2Q community and #YouCanPlay and that group,” Naraine said.
“We’ve seen athletes in 2018 understand that, ‘Yes, I’m a visible, popular figure and people are interested in what I have to say, but now I don’t have to go through mainstream media or traditional channels, I now have direct access to my fans and to a greater conversation so I can help facilitate that conversation and really speak up on the issues I stand for.' "
DeRozan sparked a conversation about mental health with a Feb. 17 tweet that read “This depression gets the best of me ...” That led to other NBA players opening up about their own struggles. DeRozan also hinted at his trade to the San Antonio Spurs in a series of Instagram stories early on July 18 before news of the deal broke.
Carcillo is one of the named plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit involving 300 former NHL players suing the league for negligence over head trauma. He regularly tweets about his continuing physical and mental issues stemming from multiple concussions.
On Nov. 24, Carcillo detailed on Twitter the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of veteran teammates in the guise of “hazing” when a rookie on the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting in 2002-03. That led to hockey commentator Don Cherry speaking out against hazing and the OHL re-stating its zero tolerance policy against hazing and physical abuse.
Denhollander was the first former gymnast to accuse Nassar, then a well-regarded physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, of sexual assault under the guise of care in 2016. It opened a floodgate, as hundreds of other women came forward with accusations against Nassar over the following months.
The 55-year-old Nassar was sentenced on Feb. 5 to 40 to 125 years in prison for three counts of sexual assault, and Denhollander’s emotional victim impact statement at his trial was widely seen on social media.
“Social media let’s you circumvent the traditional structures that are in place,” Naraine said. “When you’re a professional athlete, then you’re tied down by what the players’ union is saying, by the league that’s trying to maintain a particular image. For athletes, having a voice on social media, allowing them to be a little more active, is a very powerful tool.”
Other major sports stories were influenced by social media. After the Humboldt Broncos bus crash on April 16 killed 16 people and injured 13, fans, hockey players and media personalities propped hockey sticks up on their front porches in tribute to the victims and survivors. The practice spread across Canada and beyond via Instagram and Twitter posts, with many wrapping green ribbon around the sticks.
There were, of course, also positive stories that came out of social media. NHL star John Tavares’s Twitter post announcing his rich new deal with Toronto, featuring a photo of him as a boy tucked under his Maple Leafs blanket, proved particularly popular.
According to Google Canada, sports stories were some of the most searched subjects in 2018.
Soccer’s World Cup and the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, were the top searches in international news ahead of the Royal Wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
The World Cup, the Olympics and the Broncos were the three most popular general searches, ahead of the deaths of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, designer Kate Spade and rapper Mac Miller.