Read Sports Commenters At Your Own Peril

Online threads on sports stories can be vile. Robert Sullivan just wants to look away.

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Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas makes a save against the Washington Capitals, April 25, 2012.

This might be an odd lede on a blog post, but here it is:

I’ve read my last thread.

I’m older, so I’m not even sure if that’s the right term for all of those comments that extend from the bottom of online articles. Isn’t it a thread? Not sure. A thread is something, I know that much.

What has happened recently: The Boston Bruins, whom I root for as I do the Sox, Celts and Pats, lost in the seventh-game overtime of the first round after having won the Stanley Cup last season. Disappointing, sure. But I woke up the next morning and read a headline on the Globe’s website that in the aftermath of the loss, all these yahoos had started going off regarding the fact that the winning goal for the Capitals had been scored by a black man.

I read not a word of the online commentary. I went from sad to disgusted, and to thinking that the Bruins—my Bruins—hadn’t deserved to win. This was complicated for me: My own fellow fans just about had me hating my own team.

Schadenfreude is a dangerous business. Last season, the Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in Game Seven of the finals, a game played in Vancouver. I reveled with friends while fans in Vancouver, a city I had always enjoyed for its beauty and seeming easy-going nature, rioted. Fires everywhere, cops assaulted, et cetera.

Well, I said to myself, that wouldn’t have happened in Boston. Not our civilized Boston.

So you fast forward, and all of these anonymous or semi-anonymous threaders are spewing this bile because a black man scored the winning goal in a Stanley Cup playoff series. Shouldn’t they be celebrating? Wouldn’t we all cheer Jackie Robinson? Don’t we cheer him every year, as on the recent Jackie Robinson Day at every single major league ballpark? Aren’t we Americans?

Complications and backstory: Our great Bruins goalie, Tim Thomas, won every trophy within his grasp a year ago, and delivered to us the Cup. He performed wonderfully, magically. Better: He was an American, an authentic American, not a Canadian or some kind of Communist. Better, he was from Vermont, which is in New England (he wasn’t from Wisconsin or Minnesota). Better: He had gone to the University of Vermont. Better: He was a U.S. Olympian. Better, he had a big smile, and red hair, and a red beard. You could not have invented a more perfect Boston sports hero if you had drawn up a cleft-chinned Patriots quarterback married to a Brazilian supermodel.

Then Thomas stiffed the President.

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Championship teams in big time sports get invited to the White House, and the Bruins did. All of the Bruins, several nationalities represented, attended, and by accounts they all had a great time. Thomas sent regrets, and told everyone it was a matter of principal. He doesn’t approve of Barack Obama.

I did not read those posts or threads. I read the headlines. There is perhaps some compelling nuance to Thomas’s views and decisions. Or perhaps he’s a Birther (I hear threads being typed even now). Basically, I said to myself a few things: He’s our goalie; I cheered like hell for Curt Schilling in the bloody-sock game, and then he got all political on us; whatever. But also, two more things: (1) If Franklin Pierce or Andrew Johnson had been President, and we had won the championship, I would have showed up (and showed respect), and (2) this isn’t over.

I cheered for Thomas and the Spokes in that recent series against the Caps, but I sensed in my bones that some folks were cheering harder. I was disappointed when all of us lost. And then I heard, the next day, that the racism had hit the fan.

It’s not like I hadn’t been living up there when desegregation hit Southie, but still I wondered: Had even our sports fandom in Boston been hardened to that awful degree, as everything else in our Republic has been?

I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I swore when I read the headlines about this that I would never read another thread. If the people who wrote in to the websites are Thomas-lovers who are upset that our red-headed Vermonter got beat in OT by a man of African heritage, I can’t help them. I’m still a Thomas fan and a Bruins fan, and am happy that he and Tukka Rask are being brought back next year. I hope the B’s win another Cup. I hope Tim goes to the White House, whether invited by Barack or Mitt. I hope he has a nice time.

The threads: I almost swore off a few years ago. A guy I knew earlier in my career—we were watching Monday Night Football together with fellow “kids” Steve Wulf, Dan Okrent, and I can’t remember who else at the baseball meetings in Dallas when Howard Cosell told us all that John Lennon had been killed (that’s how old we are)—was Dan Shaughnessy. He wrote for the Globe then, and he writes for it still. I used to deliver the Globe with a canvas sack when I was a boy, and couldn’t hear a bad word about Ray Fitzgerald, Bud Collins and later Peter Gammons and then Shaughnessy. He was (and I presume is; I haven’t been in touch in years) a great guy.

My dad called me one day and said, among other things, “I heard an interesting thing about that fellow you know, Shaughnessy.”


“Apparently Ted Williams learned that Shaughnessy’s daughter was sick—pretty sick—and he called from Florida and got Shaughnessy on the phone and asked if he could talk to her.”

And last year, I noticed, Carl Yastrzemski, who talks to no one, talked to Shaughnessy for a very fine column.

Good enough for Ted and Yaz, good enough for me.

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Now here’s the thing: Shaughnessy is the all-time Hall of Fame world-beating champion in terms of instigating endless, vigorously awful threads. For some reason, maybe because he doesn’t root-root-root hard enough for the home team or maybe because once when Ortiz was in a poor mood our dear, beloved Papi dissed Dan in the clubhouse, Shaughnessy cannot type his byline without setting a flame under the Boston area’s latest generation of “knights of the keyboard.”

I was on the phone a couple of years ago with Leigh Montville, who also worked for the Globe back when and was a colleague of mine years ago at SI. Most folks do like Leigh, as they should, and his books are well reviewed, as they deserve to be. We were talking about this and that—just catching up—and then he said, “Why does everyone seem to hate Dan up here? Have you read that stuff under his columns?”

“I have. I don’t get it.”

“It’s weird,” Leigh said. “Stuff like that.”

It certainly is, and to my discredit, I wasn’t done with it at the time.

But I am now—if people have problems with a black hockey player scoring the triumphant goal in a terrific, seven-game series for the ages.

And now . . . Let the threads begin!

Robert Sullivan, author of Our Red Sox among other books, is Managing Editor of LIFE Books and a sometime contributor to Keeping Score.