Here in New York, order has been restored. The New York Giants upset the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday, February 5, and marched down the Canyon of Heroes on Tuesday, February 7—the city’s first championship celebration in almost two and a half years—giving their city’s sports success a much-needed shot in the arm. And yet, Big Blue might have spent Super Bowl weekend at home in New York if not for two gigantic miscues by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game.
Yes, the now-infamous Kyle Williams punt return blunders contributed greatly to the 49ers’ loss. Turning the ball over twice on special teams on a muffed punt and a fumble were really the only noticeable faults in San Francisco’s performance. However, the response of several of San Francisco’s fans has turned these errors into a matter beyond the realm of football.
Mere minutes after the game, social networking sites lit up with posts about Williams. While he perhaps earned some of the criticism, several of these posts were shockingly ugly. These examples sum up the particularly crude ones pretty well: “@KyleWilliams_10 I hope you, youre [sic] wife, kids and family die, you deserve it” and “Jim Harbaugh, please give @KyleWilliams_10 the game ball. And make sure it explodes in his car.” Aside from a lack of understanding of or concern for basic grammar and spelling, the posts are nothing short of disgusting.
This is not Ancient Rome, and this is not the Mayan Empire. We do not sacrifice our athletes when they fail. Sure, after several years of disappointment, emotions for San Francisco’s fan base were running high. But the utter hatred and extreme tone in these posts cannot be justified.
What is at work here is a failure to perceive Williams as a human being. Fans don’t really see the human side of professional athletes. Instead, they see a uniform of their color and expect the player wearing it to perform well enough to win. When Williams failed to do so, the wrath of 49ers’ fans was unleashed. These posts are a symptom of a larger problem in America’s sports culture: the objectification of human beings that play sports.
Williams, of course, is just the latest high-profile victim of the phenomenon. Billy Cundiff, kicker for the Baltimore Ravens, received similar death threats the very same week as Williams for his botched 32-yard field goal attempt, which would have sent the Ravens into overtime against that New England Patriots had it been successful. Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox also received death threats after watching a ground ball, along with a series-clinching win, slip right between his legs in the 1986 World Series, despite an otherwise respectable career on and off the field. The objectification of athletes can also play to their advantage at times—such is the case with Ben Roethlisberger. Despite a checkered off-field life, including two allegations of rape, he receives vehement fan support because of his repeated on-field success. The thing that remains constant is that fans no longer judge athletes by human standards, but by their statistics.
This altered athletic standard is inexcusable. It is what makes it possible for athletes to get away with wrongdoings. It is what allows an upstanding, decent man’s name to be sullied publicly. It is what muddles otherwise cut-and-dried questions of morality and humanity.
Meanwhile, Williams has owned up to his faults admirably. Rather than turning to several possible excuses, including the fact that he is not the team’s usual punt returner, he admitted to his blunders and apologized for losing the game, saying he intends to move on and improve: “I made a mistake in a key situation […] things happen in the game of football and you’ve got to bounce back from it.” His teammates have been eager to rush to his defense, railing against fans and opportunistic reporters that seek to pin the whole loss on him. This kind of behavior and overall attitude in the face of a big loss ought to be celebrated and commended, but many have refused to let Williams move on. Instead, his fumbles have come to represent his relatively short two-year career and even his public image.
Fortunately, Williams has garnered more support in the wake of these despicable death threats. Several past and present NFL players, including David Akers, Kurt Warner, and Deion Grant, as well as influential voices in the media have decried the disgusting treatment he has received. This proves that there are indeed people out there who seem to understand human error, and the relative unimportance of one football game.
But by and large, we continue to judge athletes differently. Too many of us are simply too obsessed with success and failure on the field, and thus our sports heroes and villains are too often unjustly classified. Until this changes, certain innocent men will continue to be vilified as certain guilty men are lauded and admired, a concept that seems outlandish and barbaric in any other context