The 2017 NFL postseason was filled with non-stop drama. While the competitive play on the field is usually the center of conversation among the national sports media, this season was different. Turn on ESPN, Fox Sports or any other sports channel and you will see headlines like “BoatGate” or “FacebookGate” in reference to the off-field actions of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.
While numerous sports broadcasters believe that these players’ actions were ill-advised, it’s truly unreasonable for the media to discuss these scandals ad nauseam and blame the Steelers’ and Giants’ playoff losses on the minor transgressions of these athletes. I believe that the sports media has become too involved in athletes’ social lives. Athletes aren’t distracting their teams; the media is distracting the athletes from simply enjoying time away from their jobs.
The controversy started when Beckham Jr. and several other New York Giants wide receivers were photographed on a boat in Miami on Jan. 2. The players were celebrating the Giants’ 19–10 victory over Washington in their regular season finale the previous night.
Had the trip not been during the Giants’ biggest week of preparation for their National Football Conference Wild Card game against the Green Bay Packers, this probably wouldn’t have been a national controversy. Even though these players were using an off-day to celebrate a successful regular season, the media attacked them.
To make matters worse, the Green Bay Packers blew out the Giants 38–13 on Jan. 8. In the most important game of the season, Beckham Jr. was a non-factor, catching four balls for just 28 yards. Was it the Packers defense that took Beckham Jr. out of the game or his boat trip to Miami? Blaming the latter is ridiculous.
Beckham Jr. and his teammates never had the intention to distract the Giants from winning their playoff game. They simply wanted to celebrate their berth into the NFL postseason. Nonetheless, Beckham Jr. said he regrets taking the trip.
“All the extra attention and distraction it caused our team and organization, I don’t think any of us wanted that and that’s where the regrets may lie,” Beckham Jr. said in an interview with ESPN.com.
A similarly “distracting” event occurred just one week later with another elite wide receiver, Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers. After Pittsburgh defeated Kansas City 18–16 in the American Football Conference Divisional playoff game, Brown pulled out his cell phone in the Steelers’ locker room and took a Facebook Live video.
Though the 17-minute video captured the excitement among the Steelers’ players in moving on to the AFC Championship, it became the center of criticism among the sports media for the next few weeks, largely because the video recorded Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin calling the New England Patriots “a–holes” during his post-game speech.
After the video surfaced, Brown was immediately criticized for his actions. He became the center of attention on various sports talk shows in the lead-up to the Steelers versus Patriots AFC Championship game. The criticism about Brown was so extreme that some analysts said the Steelers should trade him in the offseason.
Brown’s playoff fate was similar to Beckham Jr.’s as the Patriots demolished the Steelers 36–17. Despite Brown having a decent impact on the game, recording seven receptions for 77 yards, people still pointed fingers at Brown for the loss.
Did Brown have any ill will toward his teammates when filming the video? Absolutely not, but of course the media thinks so. A few days after the video, Brown made a public apology.
“I let my emotions and genuine excitement get the best of me, and I wanted to share that moment with our fans,” Brown said on Twitter.
Both players have apologized to the public, but I believe that the media owes an apology to these players. Neither player used drugs or caused any sort of harm to themselves or the team. They wanted to use social media to express themselves and enjoy their time off the field.
Going forward, it’s important for the media to understand boundaries. Given modern technology, the sports world heavily relies on social media. People must understand that athletes are going to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to give their fans a closer look at their lives.
Fans have shown that they want to engage. Consider the Super Bowl. 64 million people posted 240 million Facebook interactions, an increase from last year’s 60 million people and 200 million posts.
Players can foster these connections with fans only if the media becomes more understanding regarding athletes’ lives off the field.