Illini's slump magnified by social media

Illinois coach Bruce Weber said earlier this week he wants to protect his players from all the negativity currently swirling around the program.

That’s easy to say, but even Weber admitted it’s difficult to achieve.

It’s never been easier for a college basketball player to be praised or criticized than in today’s social media world. All a fan needs is a player’s Twitter handle, and he/she has direct access to their most-beloved and most-hated player. With a click of the button, that player can read whatever has been written to them or about them.

When a team is winning and a player is succeeding, the direction mentions on Twitters can further brighten someone’s day. When you’re struggling like Illinois is right now, those messages take a dark turn.

“The social media thing is a tremendous two-way sword,” ESPN college basketball analyst Stephen Bardo said. “The negative side is rough. I’ve felt it myself as an analyst, and I’m a 43-year-old man. I’m amazed at the negativity of people to share their views and beliefs. These are grown adults doing this at times. I can’t imagine college people.”

Take for example the abuse Illinois sophomore Meyers Leonard received Saturday when he was caught on camera crying on the team’s bench during the Illini’s blowout loss to Nebraska.

While some fans directed words of support to Leonard at @MLeonard_12 and wrote him how they respected him for caring so much about Illinois, others took Leonard’s emotional breakdown as an opportunity to fire insults at him in 160 characters or less.

If Leonard browsed his Twitter interactions from 5:41 p.m. to 5:43 p.m. on Saturday, these would be among the direct messages he would have read:

  • “@MLeonard_12 damn your #emotional”

  • “U of I ... Where are you @MLeonard_12 stop crying and put your [expletive] hands up”

  • “@MLeonard_12 bro why dude cryin on da bench?”

  • “did you just see @MLeonard_12 ballin like a [expletive] baby on the bench and down by 30.ah hahahahaha #nebrasketball”

  • “@MLeonard_12 is crying on the sideline. Quit being a [expletive] and get the job done. #WasteOfTalent Crying wont impress the NBA scouts #Pathetic”

    Leonard may be headed to the NBA and millions of dollars in the near future, but Bardo still thought those sort of criticisms would be difficult for a 20-year-old sophomore to handle.

    “He catches a brunt of the fans’ frustrations about the team,” Bardo said. “Of course, when it rains, it pours. People took potshots when he showed emotion on the bench. I was okay with Meyers crying. He showed he cared. He wants to win and hates losing.”

    Weber has banned previous teams from Twitter, but has allowed this year’s team to use it. Even if this team wasn’t allowed to Tweet, it wouldn’t likely stop them from getting on Twitter and reading what’s written about them.

    Bardo thought the players’ best bet was to get off Twitter completely, but he also realized that wasn’t realistic.

    “It would be nice just if they put down Twitter for a couple of weeks, not even refer to it,” Bardo said. “But it’s something that’s become so much a part of players’ lives now. I just hope [Leonard] has some adults around him to kind of deal with the emotional backlash now.”

    Weber has attempted to shield his players, but he also understood the complexity of it.

    “It’s really tough,” Weber said. “I have to be positive and tell them to avoid it if we can.”