Twitter threats to Marc Trestman's family are appalling

Bears coach Marc Trestman unfortunatley has had more to think about lately than wins and losses. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- Tracked down by the media after tweeting a series of death threats toward New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez two years ago, a 25-year-old Jets fan was surprised his posts were taken seriously.

"People get threatened every day on Twitter," he told New Jersey's Star-Ledger in December 2012. "Because it's Mark Sanchez, it doesn't make it [any different]. If I'm in trouble, everyone should be in trouble ... I apologize, it was wrong my remarks, but they're just tweets."

Those words ring even more troubling -- but just as frightening -- today. After the Chicago Bears' one-sided loss to their division-rival Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, ugly and threatening tweets were directed at Marc Trestman's daughters, who are both in their 20s.

On Wednesday, the Bears coach called it a "personal issue" that he would work through with his family. But believe this, the Bears are addressing it. And whether a person is truly dangerous and capable of the sort of actions they threaten, or someone believes promising physical harm is somehow less serious when it is done anonymously via social media, there are laws in place that do not distinguish between the two.

Illinois is one of approximately 30 states that currently have cyber-stalking and cyber-harassment laws on the books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

"There's a fine line between first amendment and harassment, but law enforcement is becoming more interested in these issues," said Bradley Shear, an attorney based in Bethesda, Maryland who specializes in social media in sports.

Sadly though not surprisingly, Shear said the type of behavior the Bears were exposed to this week is "not unique."

All you had to do was walk through the Bears' locker room Wednesday to confirm that. Talking about their own personal brushes with threats and harassment, players made it clear they are exposed to this sort of a thing on a stunningly routine basis.

"People have told me I have to leave Twitter because my Twitter was filled with people saying they were going to kill me," Bears safety Chris Conte said almost casually. "But you have to understand it's all talk...

"Social media is not reality. It's just a space where people voice what they say in their living rooms -- people still talking the same mess and junk in their living rooms before, but they push a button and nobody knows who said it."

Of course, the ease of such morally corrupt and perhaps criminal behavior is at the crux of the issue as flippant cruelty dominates digital comment sections and message boards across all genres these days.

Bears tight end Martellus Bennett claimed he doesn't care what people say about him on social media sites. But he still shakes his head at the absurdity of much of it.

"Say if we lost a game yesterday and I go have lunch with my daughter and post a picture; it's, 'You suck, why are you having lunch with your daughter?'" he said.

Bennett said that similar to many players' wives, his wife got off social media because she was tired of the harassment.

"Me, it's cool," he said. "This is what I do for a living. You're not happy with my performance, you paid for a ticket, you can say what you want to say. But you don't have a right to attack people's families, their kids. What did they have to do with it?"

But can fans really say whatever they want to say?

"If someone was saying something about my kids, it would be a whole different story," said Conte, who does not have children. "There has to be a point where these people are held accountable because it really does affect people, like in [the Trestman's] instance. Someone's daughter? That's going way too far."

Regarding the Bears' incident, a Twitter spokesman responded via email that the company has been "reviewing related reports since Sunday and suspending accounts that violate our rules, which include a ban on targeted abuse."

Twitter has an abusive behavior policy, which allows users to report content that may violate its rules and allows for law enforcement to request information about its accounts.

A spokesman from the FBI's Chicago office said via email he could not comment specifically on the case, but "while we respect a person's first amendment right to free speech, crossing the line into criminal activity could potentially subject someone to prosecution."

The NFL office also would not comment specifically on the Bears' case, but spokesman Greg Aiello did say the league would provide any support needed.

"It's happening more and more," Shear said. "It's really important that teams are proactive and train their athletes, coaches and staff members about these issues -- and when this sort of thing does happen, it's imperative they report it to law enforcement."

Former Bears coach and current ESPN analyst Mike Ditka could barely contain himself Wednesday when talking about what Trestman and his family have been subjected to.

"Marc is a levelheaded guy," Ditka said. "He's a guy who keeps himself under control. Me? I'd like to find the individual [behind the threatening tweets] and kick his ass. I'd sure like to take a shot at that [person]. I can't be any more blunt than that. There's a gutless approach to everything and that's what we have come to in our society. It's absolutely pathetic."

Bennett said there should be "Internet police. If it's threatening, they should do something about it because you don't know what that person's intentions are. And if there are no consequences, it continues. I think it's all [screwed] up."

Much like that Jets' fan who tried to argue his case for tweeting, among other things: "DON'T COME TO PRACTICE WEDNESDAY I PROMISE YOU BULLETS EVERYWHERE..."

"It's not like I'm in a stadium shouting in his face," he told the Star-Ledger. "I'm not going to his house or going to practice. It's just a tweet. It's my account and I tweeted something."

Perhaps if there were no Internet police to sic on him, Ditka would have worked just as well. But the former coach-turned-analyst said he can't fathom how he would have reacted if social media had existed when he coached.

"No way I ever could have handled that. It's a whole different world now, it really is," he said. "Football is a sport to me, it's a game. And you hope you can win and represent your city, but the other team is trying to do the same damn thing. They're trying too, sometimes with better players than you've got. Sometimes it's just simple facts."

And sometimes, sadly, simple facts still get trampled by simple ignorance.