Trolls awaken

Chico State athletes stand behind social media campaign despite hateful online response

Photo courtesy of Chico State Athletics

On Halloween night during his freshman year at Chico State, soccer player Dylan Wakefield was walking down Ivy Street when a woman on the porch of a house yelled a racial slur at him.

“She said, ‘Hey, look, it’s an N-word,’” he said. “I was with a couple of girl friends and they were really upset. Some random guys were sympathetic and said, ‘Wow, dude, I can’t believe she just said that to you.’” Wakefield, now 21, recently has been exposed to hundreds more insensitive, crude and downright hateful comments. This time, rather than being hurled from a house party, they’re coming from strangers online.

Wakefield’s one of about 20 student athletes at Chico State who participated in a social media campaign called “You Don’t Say.” It tackles commonly used but potentially offensive terms—i.e., “gay,” “retard” or “pussy”—in a series of images with captions. One features cross-country runner Olivia Watt and the statement, “I don’t say ‘you’re a pussy’ because a part of a woman’s body should never be a connotation for weakness.” Each athlete wrote the statement that accompanies his or her photo. Wakefield’s reads, “I don’t say ‘nigga or nigger’ because it is derogatory and offensive to me, my family, and to people of color.”

“It’s a sensitive term for everyone,” he told the CN&R during a phone interview. “I don’t find it OK for black people to say it, white people, anybody. It’s one of those terms that should be avoided, but it’s become overused and almost popular.”

The campaign has blown up since launching on Oct. 20. The photos have been shared thousands of times on various social media platforms, Forbes ran a short story online and the subject has served as opinion fodder for Fox News. Now, Chico State Athletics is fielding interview requests from national TV news programs.

It’s been a whirlwind, but above it all, the response on social media has been overwhelming, said Haley Kroll of the women’s cross country team. The positive comments are “outweighed by the negative ones tenfold.”

Internet trolls lurk on message boards and comments sections online, purposefully disrupting conversations and upsetting people.

Many of the comments posted about “You Don’t Say” are of this sort: men debating which female athletes they’d prefer to “smash” (have sex with); white people protesting the “inequality” of the N-word being “restricted to black people”; and social media users of all stripes chortling about how two Chico State basketball players “look retarded.” And that’s the tame stuff.

Notably, the majority of the nasty comments have been made by people who don’t live in Chico, according to Luke Reid, the university’s sports information director.

Some of the comments fall into a different category. As noted in a recent New York Times editorial, many Americans identify with presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rejection of the politically correct culture emanating from liberal university campuses. The term “PC” itself has become something an insult, a catch-all phrase to describe people who tip-toe around offensive subjects and language.

That’s evident in the vitriolic postings to Chico State Athletics’ Facebook page. One calls for “euthanasia of the language police.” Another laments “the pussification of America.” Yet another adds that, “Maybe it’s easier to list the words that we can say.” Indeed, buried in the toxic spew is the general attitude that hypersensitivity is trampling free thought and free speech.

“It may not be a nice thing to say, but this is still America and we still have the First Amendment to consider,” writes one commenter, “which is way more important than anyone’s feelings.”

Kroll, 22, is co-president of the Chico State Student Athlete Advisory Committee, a student body representing every sports team on campus. She got the idea for “You Don’t Say” from a similar campaign at Duke University and, with the committee’s full support, gave it a soft launch in April by placing posters around campus. The athletes who participated wanted to spur productive conversations.

“We wanted everyone to feel comfortable expressing who they are,” Kroll said. “We wanted our language to reflect what we stand for as Chico State Athletics.”

The initial response was overwhelmingly positive, said Athletics Director Anita Barker. “This is supposed to be thought-provoking and a conversation starter,” she said. “That’s what it did in April, and that’s what it’s doing now.”

It took a few days for the social media campaign to go viral, Kroll said.

“I never would have dreamed it would get as big as it has,” she said. “We expected some backlash, but didn’t necessarily expect it to this degree.” Recently, the student athletes considered removing the posts, but they unanimously chose to leave them up.

“I was pretty wrapped up in [the comments] for a couple days, but I stopped looking,” Kroll said. “What do I care what these people say? I know what I’m doing is right and I’m passionate about it, and that’s what’s important.”