With only a few seconds remaining in the game, fifth-year senior Michigan punter Blake O’Neill stood on a football field in Ann Arbor, Mich., surrounded by thousands of people donning the maize and blue. When O’Neill jogged on to the field, Michigan appeared to have already won the game.
New Head Coach Jim Harbaugh endured a great deal of criticism following Michigan’s loss in the season opener to Utah, but a resilient defense helped lead the Wolverines to five straight wins and a ranking as the 12th best team in the nation according to the Associated Press poll. For Harbaugh, a win over undefeated Michigan State would have validated his abilities to make the Michigan program relevant again. Then, O’Neill dropped the ball. Michigan State scooped the ball and returned it to the end zone while stunned Michigan fans stood still.
O’Neill attempted to punt the ball even after he failed to catch the original snap, but the Spartans special teams unit swarmed him too quickly. Just like Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State team, Michigan fans and sports critics pounced on the opportunity to mock and insult the college senior, rebuking the 22-year-old Australian for his mistake. Some compared the punter to inanimate objects. Others suggested that he should commit suicide, but most people who spewed that vitriol wisely deleted it later. Whether they did or not, people read those thoughts. Others resorted to technology to make a young college student the butt of their jokes or to harshly berate him.
The amount of anger and dismay fans expressed toward O’Neill in the hours following the game led Michigan’s Athletic Director Jim Hackett to tell fans to stop blaming O’Neill for the loss. O’Neill had to deal with the disappointment of letting his teammates down at a crucial juncture of the game. Now, he must cope unfairly with all the disparaging comments that people direct toward him from behind their keyboards.
It is easy to let ourselves wonder why people say such mean things about a young man whose name they did not even know 72 hours ago. Unfortunately, the answer surrounds us. It does not take long to scroll down a Facebook feed or Twitter page to see some video or comments that disparage another person. Late-night television hosts use this type of humor nightly to mock celebrities or politicians just for a laugh. The separation that exists between athletes and the average fan makes people on the Internet feel comfortable taking shots at the athletes. No one who tweeted at O’Neill would expect him to tweet back at them.
What makes this even sadder is that O’Neill is a college student. Every weekday morning he wakes up, goes to class, practices football and studies. He possesses both a bachelor’s degree from RMIT University of Melbourne and a master’s from Weber State. While O’Neill is one of the best punters in the nation, his decision to attend Michigan seems to be based on academics. One day in the near future, Blake O’Neill will be a graduate of the University of Michigan, leaving his playing days behind him.
O’Neill is just like many of us. He is a student trying to earn his degree. He has family and friends. One day he is unknown to most Michigan fans; the next, his Twitter mentions explode because of angry fans. Many college students make mistakes, and O’Neill also did. Unfortunately, it has happened on a much bigger stage, too.
Finding a scapegoat has become ingrained in American sports culture. A few hundred miles south of Ann Arbor, the Chicago Cubs are playing in the National League Championship Series for the first time since their fans blamed Steve Bartman for the team’s 2003 NCLS meltdown. The poor man had to go into hiding after accidentally hitting a fly ball away from Cubs outfielder Moises Alou.
For whatever reason, fans need someone to ridicule, with no regard to the emotions of that person. In a few weeks, some other athlete will do something to cost his or her team a game and the Twitter trolls will reappear. But I hope they think about how people would react if their mistakes were televised for public consumption. Maybe they would change their tune then.
Nick Barton is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. More than a Game appears every other Tuesday.
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