It used to be, if athletes read something negative about themselves, it was coming from someone they knew -- the local beat reporter or columnist, individuals who have spent time interviewing them inside the locker room or the press room. These were the only voices they knew of.
And if an athlete wanted to engage one of these critics, it was likely going to happen inside that very same locker room. There's a famous clip of Bobby Bonilla getting testy with sportswriter Bob Klapisch, or, more recently, Jason Williams ripping a pen out of a columnist's hand.
But once sports punditry expanded to the Web, and seemingly anyone with a little time on their hands was able to put out an opinion about a sports figure, criticism moved from a singular voice to a whole chorus of it. No longer could athletes easily respond if they so chose; either they were too busy to keep track, or they didn't have the means to contact or respond to them. These individuals weren't in front of their locker the next night. And anonymity made it easy for online commentators to keep a safe distance between athletes and themselves, which allowed for far more nastiness.
But now that several athletes have created their own online presence, be it a blog or Twitter account, we're starting to see them publicly respond to this negativity from their "haters." They now have a voice in the same playground their critics are emanating from.
On Friday, TrueHoop's Henry Abbott dug deep into the conundrum that is Kevin Durant: He's a terrific player and gifted scorer, but his plus/minus statistics suggest the Thunder are better when he's sitting on the bench. Over the weekend on Twitter, Durant appeared to bite back at Abbott in a series of tweets:
"Everybody that is doubtin me as a player and my team as a whole..all i can say is that we all are tryin and workin our hardest!"
"What more do u want? let me be the player i am … i come to practice everyday … and push myself to my limit, God has put me n a gr8 position!!"
"I love all the REAL basketball fans who appreciate hardwork, passion and love for the game..and not jus "plus and minuses" … wateva dat is!"
Abbott thoughtfully responded Monday. This sort of exchange -- a basketball writer using advanced statistics to form an argument to which an athlete responded to, and then the writer rebuttals -- just doesn't happen pre-Internet age.
Perhaps a better example of this idea comes from earlier this month, when a Lakers fan and blogger wrote an open letter to Ron Artest that was one part praise, one part "you better not mess this up for us."
After it got some publicity online, the blogger, Kyle Slavin, had an e-mail exchange with Artest (Artest has placed a personal e-mail account on his Twitter page for fans who want to e-mail him), and Ron-Ron wasn't very nice in his response, and he also made sure everyone knew about it via Twitter.
Ten years ago, how does Slavin or someone like him get Artest to read, or even respond, to something he's penned? Send it in the mail to the Lakers? Show up at Artest's residence, or outside an arena and hand it off to him? None of these seem like a likely scenario, but with Twitter and the like, we've seen these access walls fall over with just a small nudge in recent months.
The interconnectivity of the Web hasn't just made it easier for fans to chat with their favorite athletes and vice versa; it's also made it easier for athletes to respond to their critics.
So, yes, beware Internet citizen. Access to an athlete is easier than ever before. But that might just mean they're coming after you.
Ryan Corazza is a freelance writer and Web designer based in Chicago.