Oh, A-Rod — I Love Your Pouty Lips. But It’s This Other Thing Makes Me Hate You.

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Oh, A-Rod — I Love Your Pouty Lips. But It’s This Other Thing Makes Me Hate You.

When a big-time celebrity joins Twitter, it’s common for the official account to give a shout-out. But when Alex Rodriguez hit the Twitter-verse, he was greeted with an unexpected surprise — an army of trolls.

“You mean A-Roid? No thanks #fraud,” tweeted one, referring to his admission to steroid use. “Will his account stop working in #October?” added another in a jab at his tendency to choke during the playoffs. “Why would you get on Twitter now?” said a third. “Everyone hates you at this point.”

From there, it snowballed pretty quickly.

I think about all this as I watch him step up to the plate. It’s a typical July afternoon, but he isn’t wearing his customary Yankees pinstripes. After undergoing hip surgery, he’s batting for the Class-A Charleston RiverDogs, working his way back to the Bronx.

If Derek Jeter is the stoic veteran that overcomes every obstacle, according to ESPN, A-Rod is an odd combination of Hall of Fame talent and the insecurities of your average Joe. He’s the Yankee that never lived up to $275 million expectations — he’s fragile, almost human. When he’s not in the ballpark, he’s been known to see a psychiatrist. On days off, he likes to go to the museum to gaze at works of art.

“I know people think I’m nuts. I know most people wouldn’t want the confrontation,” he told USA Today. “Most people would say, ‘Get me out of here. Trade me. Do anything.’ But I’m the crazy man who goes, ‘I want to compete. I want to stay in New York. I refuse to quit’.”

But this time, he’s not competing against another team; he’s going up against trolls, and the more he hangs in there, the more virulent they get — a perfect storm of sports and trolling that underscores just how combustible social media can be.

Being a celebrity was once a one-way affair. Publicists would carefully craft your image before pushing it through media channels. And should bad press occur, damage control was just another package away, often in the form of an exclusive interview.

But that was before the birth of the Internet. In the ’90s, as the Web matured, it became the staple through which we defined our emotional lives. Hop over to any Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account today and you’ll see meticulously groomed posts, photos and videos, chosen to project just the right image. It’s those same channels that now double as direct lines to our idols, used not just to praise, but also to taunt, berate and otherwise verbally abuse them.

These days, trolling encompasses any form of online abuse — cruel jokes, criticism, even outright threats. But it didn’t start out that way. The first trolls — a term to label someone who purposely posts messages to disrupt — were harmless. They feigned a naivete, often wandering on newsgroups and asking idiotic questions to see who would respond.

In a sense, it was an exclusive club, and to become a member, you just had to recognize the trap. Like high school, if you didn’t fall for it, you were in on it. When trolls posted provocative messages, like on 4chan.org, a forum that draws in over 200 million page views each month, they sowed the seeds for ridicule. The more you troll, a troll told me, the more “lulz,” a bastardization of the acronym “lol,” or “laugh out loud,” are to be had.

When I asked what the point was, he replied, “There’s a certain satisfaction you get from seeing someone go completely ape sh*t.”

Some call 4chan a cesspool of the Web, while others say it’s merely entertainment and freedom of speech at its most raw form. Since you can post in complete anonymity, nobody is held accountable, making it a particularly ruthless yet unique environment.

“You do it for the lulz,” a member told me, which happens to be the catchphrase that embodies the culture.

The act of trolling, according to the New York Times, is actually quite simple: “1. Do whatever it takes to get lulz. 2. Make sure the lulz is widely distributed. This will allow for more lulz to be made. 3. The game is never over until all the lulz have been had.”

But to troll well, I realized, takes a certain level of talent, and nobody does it better than Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian behind Ali G. Dressed in pseudo-homeboy apparel with a slang-filled dialect, he interviews ill-informed politicians and celebrities, pushing their patience with idiotic and often offensive questions.

Take his interview of NBA all-star Kobe Bryant, for example:

“How may springs does an official ball have in it?”

“How many springs? It doesn’t have any springs in it.”

“Well, how does it bounce then?”

“It’s air — there’s air in the ball.”

“Well, there’s air in this room. How come this room ain’t bouncing?”

Of course, everyone except Bryant, who by now is bewildered by his stupidity, is in on the joke. In a nutshell, that’s a lulz, and the concept of trolling.

Today, though, trolls are less playful and far more spiteful. You can find them at all corners of the Web, but they seem particularly intense around sports. Perhaps it’s the raw nature of competition — the rule that says there can only be one winner — and contrary to real-life, where cooperation and compromise are often options, there’s no sharing. You win or you lose. And when you lose, especially if it happens repeatedly, hating can help you cope.

But on a deeper level, we often hate because we lack the self-awareness or, in the case of rooting for the wrong team, the ability to improve. More often than not, it boils down to jealousy and envy. That’s often what Red Sox fans imply when they say they despise the Yankees. Of course, there’s also the question of a we’re-better-than-you attitude that can rub you the wrong way — but envy, more often than not, is at the source, reminding us that we’re excluded from that special club of winners.

Envy turns to resentment, which used to come out as solitary brooding, or perhaps complaining among a group of like-minded friends.

There’s a slight difference between haters and trolls: haters don’t care about the response; trolls do it for the lulz. But with the rise of social media, either can create conflict rather easily, especially in A-Rod’s case. In psychology, the phenomenon, called “groupthink,” says we have a tendency to conform to our peers and do what they do, even if we think it’s wrong. And nothing makes it more viral than the Internet.

Emotions and perceptions are especially vivid when it comes to sports. “There is compelling evidence that this is basically a real relationship in your brain,” Eric Simons, author of “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans,” told Smithsonian Magazine. “In a very real sense, the sports team becomes a part of you. You just feel like whatever success it achieves is a personal success, and whatever failure it has is a personal failure.”

That’s why, in the past, Red Sox fans who suffered year after year couldn’t just walk away — you can’t cut off something that’s a part of you. That’s also why if you’re a Yankees fan, you get wound up in every A-Rod choke and every Jeter clutch hit.

In 2011, a group of Princeton psychologists found that Yankees and Red Sox fans were more likely to react with aggression when the other side succeeds, as compared to, say, a neutral team like the Baltimore Orioles. It seems obvious, but NYU researchers further discovered that people consistently misjudged distances when they feel threatened. For example, Yankees fans thought Boston was slightly closer to New York and non-threatening Baltimore was a bit farther away. Meanwhile, non-fans correctly estimated that Baltimore’s Camden Yards was closer than Boston’s Fenway Park.

The conclusion? Michael Corleone was right: we keep our friends close, but our enemies closer. And in baseball, just as in real-life, our emotions rise and fall with what’s happening at the moment, altering our perception of the truth.


The reason for those mood swings lie in our hormones. Researchers who study testosterone say fans often show a similar hormonal response to players on the field. But sports are no different from political views or dealing with annoying relatives. Substitute the word A-Rod with something you deeply care about — like, say, Barack Obama or John McCain, for example — and a sort of aggravation — one that’s automatically attached to any relationship we feel strongly about — will often begin to build.

In fact, when Obama was declared the winner of the 2008 elections, Steven Stanton, a researcher at Duke’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, found that men who voted for McCain suffered an rapid drop in testosterone, while those who voted for the winner, Obama, had stable levels, instead of a normally slight night-time drop. The results suggest that males are physiologically affected by their candidate’s win or lose. According to the study, Stanton said the scientific consensus suggests that our response to competition directly affects our future behavior. That’s why if your team wins, you have an irresistible urge to gloat and when you lose, you sulk quietly.

Women are less affected by swings in victory and defeat because their ovaries and adrenal glands produce lesser amounts of testosterone.

Studies have also shown that the day after your team wins, the pleasure of success affects your brain’s deepest emotional centers, causing you to feel better about yourself. So on a literal level, you actually believe your team’s victories are your own, a phenomenon psychologists call “basking in reflected glory,” or BIRG-ing. That’s also why you tend to say “we” won, rather than “I” won. Likewise, if your team loses, you tend distance yourself from the defeat, called “cutting off reflected failure,” or CORF-ing. That’s why you don’t say “we” choked; it’s “A-Rod” choked.

Of course, A-Rod in particular seems to attract a disproportionate amount of haters and trolls. It’s a combination of poor playoff performance with a messy private life. To casual observers, he embodies the archetypal golden boy, a ballplayer who’s been handed all the keys to success. But it’s also hard to sympathize when he asks a female fan for a date during an American League Championship game.

“It’s not really A-Rod I ‘hate’. It’s what he represents — those arrogant, overpaid New Yorkers,” a Bostonian told me. “That’s why I love the underdog. That’s why I love the Red Sox.”

Trolls live to see that “ape sh*t” moment, so retaliation is often the worst thing you can do when confronted with online hating — it may make you feel better, but it also adds fuel to the fire. The best response is often to simply ignore or block them, or adjust your privacy controls. But in the age of cyber-bullying, sometimes it pays to be proactive. For that, Founding Father Ben Franklin has words of wisdom.

In his campaign for re-election as clerk of the general assembly, a man, who Franklin never names in his autobiography, delivered a scathing speech, lambasting him in the legislature. Franklin wasn’t pleased, to say the least, but he knew that the man would one day become a person of great influence, so it was far better to make him a friend than an enemy.

He used a stealthy maneuver to disarm him, a move that would be forever known as “The Franklin Effect.” He asked him for a favor.

When Franklin heard the man had “a certain very scarce and curious book” in his library, he wrote a note to him, asking if he could borrow it. The flattered rival immediately had it sent over. After a week, Franklin returned it, along with a note thanking him for his help. The next time the two met in the House, they struck up a conversation. He even “manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions,” Franklin wrote, adding that they became “great friends… to his death.”

On the surface that one question, “Could you do a favor for me?” seems simple, but it sets off a series of interpersonal maneuvers. “The word ‘favor’ implies there’s no cost, but that’s not so,” Frederick Kanfer, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told the New York Times. “Asking for and doing a favor sometimes signals cooperation, but more often, it is an unwritten social contract setting up a power relationship.”

We’re conditioned to believe we do nice things for those we like and bad things to those we hate. But Franklin understood that, in fact, the reverse was true: we like those we do nice things for and dislike those who we harm. So when you ask for a favor, according to Kanfer, that person feels good about you because you’re essentially saying, “I need you.”


I watch A-Rod strike out on his last at bat. He exits 0-for-2 for the day. Meanwhile, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig is expected to suspend him, along with as many as 20 players, after next week’s All-Star break for his possible role in the Biogenesis doping case.

“I don’t think he’s ever going to be the same,” I tell the man sitting next to me. “It looks like a lost season for the Yankees.”

“It’s not like that,” he replies. “They’ll make the playoffs once A-Rod’s back. Watch — you’ll see.” Then he gives me a 15-minute explanation about how A-Rod is just working out the kinks, how his natural talent will overcome his age and how God himself had blessed his bat and glove. “The Yankees are the greatest team that was, is and ever will be,” he adds for good measure.

And then it hits me. The man, who just minutes ago seemed like a level-headed person, had turned into an irrational fan. For a moment, I consider asking him a favor, but then I decide otherwise.

Let the trolling begin.

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