In the run-up to the Final Four last weekend, ESPN Classic re-aired Ezra Edelman’s excellent 2014 documentary, “Requiem For the Big East.” Included in that film is a lengthy look at the abuse heaped upon Patrick Ewing at visiting gyms in the early ’80s, insults that focused both on his race and his supposed ignorance.
And so in the film, you see Howard Cosell, talking about “a series of incidents which has marred this season and shamed the nation.” You see a Washington Post headline: “Ewing Faces Taunts, Slurs for being Basketball Giant.” And you see the posters and shirts created by opposing fans: “EWING CANT REED DIS,” for example.
Much of the abuse, of course, was explicitly racial. And helped by the grainy footage and outdated fashion, these incidents seem like the product of an entirely different, less progressive, era. It feels, in other words, like that couldn’t happen today.
I watched the film on Sunday afternoon. Monday night, Duke beat Wisconsin. Maryland’s prized new recruit, Diamond Stone — a Milwaukee kid and former Wisconsin target — celebrated the milestone with mildly provocative tweets: laughing emoticons, a congratulatory message to Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, marching turtle emoticons, and so on.
And so Wisconsin fans were not pleased, as you might expect. And Wisconsin fans responded, as you might expect. Things got ugly, as you might expect. And it made me want to secede from sports fandom, as you might expect. A sampling (and yes, most of these have nothing to do with race):
Of course, this was the milder stuff; I’ve left out the many homophobic slurs, the blasts of profanity, and the particularly pleasant comment abouts defecating down Stone’s mouth with a snorkel and his mom being a “crack whore.” And again, none of this should be surprising. Wisconsin fans had been giving Stone grief since he made his choice; his ACT score has been the subject of countless message-board posts and internet comments since then.
“I get all the tweets, calling me a traitor, swearing at me,” Stone said in a radio interview last week. “I just ignore all that, turn my notifications off.”
“Wisconsin fans are trying to find every little thing to get at me,” Stone continued. “My guidance counselor [asked me], ‘Do you want me to post your scores online to people know?’ I got a 20 on the ACT and I was all fine to go to Wisconsin. I could’ve went to Wisconsin, but I feel like Maryland is the place for me.”
In that context — and with Wisconsin fans smarting from a narrow loss in the national title game — Stone’s tweets were kerosene on a backyard grill. Everything was destroyed; only smelly ashes were left behind.
Still, it brought me back to that Ewing scene from Edelman’s film. What the Georgetown star faced was more viscerally jarring: the banner with the image of an ape, the banana peel thrown onto a court. Ewing said in the documentary that he even received death threats.
But he also said John Thompson shielded him from much of the abuse, that he didn’t always know everything that was being done and said about him. No coach can shield a modern athlete from what’s said in their Twitter mentions — not a pro, not a college kid, and not even a high school teenager like Stone. You will be abused regardless. And if you respond, the abuse will only magnify.
So the only real solutions are either to forfeit normal life and get off social media entirely, or to adopt Ewing’s philosophy from the ’80s.
“I tried to block all that stuff out,” he told Edelman. “As long as I don’t let it hurt me, then they’re not winning.”