Sunday’s Tweet-ocide of Jay Cutler’s character seemed like a landmark event in the evolving relationship between sports and technology. Who ever heard of a mass flogging of a quarterback, leading to the man dissolving into tears, leading to an entire day of soul-searching by a national sports community? Well, it turns out, this phenomenon has been gathering steam for a while. And it’s already done a lot more damage than you can possibly imagine.
Say hello to “social contagion.”
Social contagion is when a behavior or attitude passes from one person to a group, or vice versa. You’ve heard the saying that when one person yawns, everyone starts yawning. And perhaps you’ve heard of the study showing that better goal celebrations create better chances of winning. Well, whether it’s a yawn or a Dougie rendition or a shank into the woods, one person’s behavior can affect the whole group. That’s not just the “chemistry” term you hear thrown around on sports radio. That’s science. And that’s what happened Sunday night. One person lobbed a Tweet grenade at the injured Bears quarterback and soon everyone got the fever.
This gets to the heart a lot of the tension between media and coaches. The press wants to know who screwed up – even if it was the referee. Often, coaches want to point the finger, too. But blaming is one of the worst social contagions of all. Athletes will see a coach blame a ref and they will subconsciously start blaming the ref, or teammates, or any number of factors. The blamestorming will spread quickly -- almost immediately --just like the common cold. Then personal responsibility erodes.
Word of mouth has been shifting to “word of keyboard” for a while. Studies have shown that weight gain, drug and alcohol use, even loneliness and depression are powerfully contagious via online networks. That’s been known for some time, but what’s being shown now is how a behavior can be spread not only to the recipient of an e-mail, text or social network sharing function, but to anyone who reads about a behavior. So when
an athlete rips someone on Twitter, it’s just as powerful as if he rips that person to his face. In fact, it might even be more damaging, as outsiders will catch the blame contagion and start thinking negatively about that player or the entire team. Then fans will react by ranting on their own Twitter accounts, which are sometimes read (and internalized) by athletes themselves. See: Cutler, Jay.
This can have more subtle and scary effects than you realize. Calling an athlete “mistake- prone” can get to that athlete (and teammates) with the click of the “Share” button. And since highlights are more ubiquitous than ever, a clip of a few wince-worthy turnovers can stick in the memories of not only those who made them, but those who might make them after watching them over and over on YouTube or SportsCenter. Perhaps the
bloopers shown on the JumboTron during timeouts -- which we know the athletes love to watch -- should be replaced by Plays of the Week.
So the next time you watch the monotone Patriots coach Bill Belichick say nothing remotely colorful in a post-game press conference, don’t roll your eyes. Instead, remember the growing problem of social contagion and thank the Hoodie for being a human hand sanitizer.
And the next time you absolutely need someone to blame for your team’s errors, maybe you should start with the person writing your angry Tweets.
-- Follow Erica Orange on Twitter at @ErOrange