Opinion: Social media causes student athletes to walk a tightrope

By Chris Gibbens—

Multimedia Journalist

Less than 2 percent of student athletes in the NCAA will make it to their prospective professional leagues, while the other 98 percent are just kids trying to get an education while playing the sport they love.

On Sept. 9, 2017, the San Diego State University Aztecs made the 5-and-a-half-hour trip to play the Arizona State University Sun Devils in a non-conference football game. The Aztecs climbed on senior running back Rashaad Penny and rode him to victory. Penny put on a spectacular performance with 200+ rushing yards, a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

After the game, Arizona fans weren’t happy— as no fan is after a loss- and a select few took to Twitter, venting their frustrations.

Personal attacks and hate mail on players were so bad, at 1:46 a.m., the official Arizona State Football account tweeted, “If you feel the need to Tweet/DM degrading and insulting comments at our student-athletes, please direct it to this account instead. Thanks.”

Two specifically targeted players were junior quarterback Manny Wilkins, and sophomore punter Michael Sleep-Dalton.

Even though Wilkins threw for 298 yards and scored two touchdowns, he was sacked four times and lost a fumble in a streaky performance. Anonymous comments directed at Wilkins included, “If you are a true Sun Devil you will hang them up bro,” and more egregiously, “Really appreciate you ruining this team and everything Taylor Kelly built. Pathetic f****** loser.”

These comments imply the team would somehow benefit from its starting quarterback quitting, and unfairly compare Wilkins to Arizona State’s previous quarterback Taylor Kelly.

Sleep-Dalton struggled mightily on the night as well, with one punt traveling just 12 yards. Anonymous comments directed at Sleep-Dalton were things like “You’re the sh**iest punter on the planet,” and “You f****** suck.”

These comments are harsh as it is, and these are just the tweets that were made public. Those athletes took substantial abuse online, and that’s not right.

Given how hard student athletes work to find a balance between school and football, it isn’t right for fans to freely attack them when they have an off game. There is no doubt it weighs on the minds and mental health of student athletes too. After all, you can only be called a “Pathetic f*****g loser,” by your so-called “supporters” so many times before you start to believe them and shut down for good.

The recent suicide of Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hilinski only added to the current firestorm that is mental health in college sports.

Hilinski, a redshirt sophomore, failed to show up to a team lifting session on Jan. 16. After coaches were unable to contact him, a welfare check was filed with the Pullman Police Department.

Before police arrived at his residence, two teammates let themselves into his apartment when he didn’t respond to knocks on the door. The teammates found Hilinski dead in his residence, with a single gunshot wound to his head and an alleged suicide note left next to him.

Hilinski was expected to take over as starting quarterback for Washington State in the upcoming season, and even saw playing time this year in the relief of quarterback Luke Falk. When Falk sustained an injury against Boise State, Hilinski came in to lead the Cougars on a comeback in triple-overtime against the nationally ranked Broncos.

Hilinski was laid to rest on Jan. 26, surrounded by his family and friends in his hometown of La Verne, California.

I can acknowledge everyone has a right to their opinion, and everyone has a right to voice that opinion through whatever platform they choose. However, when it passes the point of criticism, and enters the realm of hate speech, it has gone too far.

While there is no known evidence of Ryan Hilinski being attacked on social media, it was clear he was ailing from something, and it goes to show the tightrope student athletes walk between school, athletics and mental health.

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