When basketball recruit Kevin Knox tweeted that he was heading to Kentucky last month, the response from jilted fans was swift and brutal.
One person wrote he wished he would die, Knox’s mother said.
“One minute they’re saying come to my school and the next minute they’re saying ... they hate you,” said Knox, 17, whose list of possible schools included North Carolina and Duke.
A look through the more than 1,200 tweets under Knox’s original post that he was heading to Kentucky showed at least 100 negative comments, some alleging without proof that he received payment for his decision, others expressing hope that he would be injured or would fail.
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In an age of social media, top recruits often announce their college decisions on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Often lauded by teams’ fans while being recruited, these young athletes can be targeted on social media when their school choices do not meet fans’ expectations.
The social media criticism can get ugly.
Knox, a 6-foot-9, 203-pound wing from Tampa (Fla.) Catholic and consensus top-10 recruit in the nation, announced he was making his decision last month after narrowing his list of finalists to Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Missouri and Florida State.
For months, fans of those schools waited to see which school he would pick. They sent him messages on Twitter, pleading their case, hoping he would choose their schools.
But when Knox tweeted he was heading to Kentucky, many of those messages changed from positive to negative.
“Hope you tear your ACL,” @AnthonyAlesi tweeted Knox.
Only 11 days before, the same user, who identifies himself as a Duke fan on Twitter, tweeted Knox, “after Tre, you’re the last missing piece to the puzzle bro.”
The comments under Knox’s post about his college decision came from fans of each of the five schools on his list of finalists. The majority were positive, congratulating him on his decision or welcoming him to Kentucky. Some were indifferent. And others were negative.
A look at the first 100 comments under the post showed 12 negative comments.
“What a joke!!! Another corrupt player to a corrupt program???,” user @tarheels0000 tweeted.
“How many duffle (sic) bags full of cash does it take for @kevin_knox23 to commit to UK???,” @JonRamirez tweeted.
Most of the authors of those tweets did not respond to requests for comment.
Twitter user Paul Showers @showers4587, who tweeted to Knox, “Coach Cal got you that Range Rover. Sad,” responded that he was frustrated by the benefits the top recruits receive.
“Because it happens everywhere! May not be a Range, but Kevin and other top recruits WILL be pushin nice whips, freshest gear, etc..watch.”
Michelle Knox, Kevin’s mom, who had monitored the negative attention her son received on social media and message boards, said she saw that one UNC fan wished her son would die.
“It was kind of really hard to read,” she said, “because not only were they negative, but you had death threats and people wishing harm to your child. It’s very disheartening because you realize people are really selfish and mean.”
Michelle Knox, a social worker who works with at-risk youth, said at work she often sees children who are cyber-bullied and the negative effects it can have on children.
“Kids who are not strong mentally, that stuff can really affect them,” she said. “It’s harsh things like that, that are ridiculous.”
Twitter’s written policy states that it will lock or permanently suspend accounts of users who promote harassment, abuse, hateful conduct, violence or violent threats.
After tweeting his decision, Knox said he immediately shut down all of his social media apps to block out the negative comments.
Lavar Batts Jr., 18, who signed a financial aid agreement with North Carolina State in April, went through a similar experience on social media.
Batts, a 6-2, 165-pound point guard who graduated from J.M. Robinson in Concord, originally signed with Virginia Commonwealth. But when the school’s coach, Will Wade, accepted a job at LSU at the end of this past season, Batts requested and was granted a release from the school. He then committed to the Wolfpack.
Batts does not have a Twitter account, but does have an Instagram page. When he posts pictures of himself, some of the fans who once rooted for him at Virginia Commonwealth, write negative comments about him.
“Some people were telling me they hoped my career falls short,” Batts said.
Some VCU fans on social media called him a traitor. Others said N.C. State won’t help him accomplish anything.
“I’m still getting it to this day,” Batts said. “It was a lot of hatred, but I didn’t pay anything to it. It was the right decision for me.”
Addressing the problem
When asked how he responds to people who make negative comments online to high school recruits, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he doesn’t follow it.
“So when a youngster makes a decision, like if they don’t choose Duke, we just shake their hand and say good luck,” Krzyzewski said. “When they choose Duke we hug them and say really good luck. Look, a kid should have a choice of wherever he goes, and people shouldn’t take things to extremes in that regard. But I don’t follow that. I don’t follow sickness. I follow health.”
Steve Kirschner, a spokesperson for UNC athletics, said fans should cheer for their team, rather than worry about who they don’t sign.
“Someone getting a death wish over what school they are choosing is reprehensible,” Kirschner said. “There is absolutely no place in athletics or, shoot, civilized society to get a death threat over which school they will attend or play ball at. I certainly hope and I think that that is an incredibly small percentage of people’s reactions. But even one time is one time too many.”
Nasty comments aimed at students isn’t new, Jay Bilas, an ESPN analyst who played for Duke from 1986 to 1989, said. He said years ago, people would send players on the team anonymous letters and some were negative.
“You’re going to hear that,” said Bilas, who isn’t a fan of high school athletes making public announcements about their school decisions. “That doesn’t make it right, but it exists and it always has. It’s just a lot easier to put out there.”
In recent years, athletes’ recruiting announcements have become more elaborate. Trevon Duval, a Duke signee, made an animated video of his decision that aired on the Players’ Tribune website and its social media pages. Mohamed Bamba, who signed with Texas last month, wrote an article on the same website explaining his decision.
Recruiting has become a sport, Bilas said. It’s competitive and it stirs emotion in fans.
“It’s kind of not necessary, but it doesn’t mean that people should act inappropriately as a response to that,” he added. “The question is what do we do about it. There is very little we can do about it other than ignore it.”
Rick Lewis, an analyst for Phenom Hoop Report, a web-based scouting service that tracks basketball recruits in North Carolina, and hosts camps — said the negative backlash is “the nature of the beast,” with social media.
He likened the passion for sports to religion and politics. Everyone has an opinion, he said.
Lewis, whose son Tyler played basketball at N.C. State before transferring to Butler, said at the camps Phenom hosts, he often recommends that recruits be careful with their social media use.
“If you’re a high-profile kid and you’re being really recruited by your blue bloods — Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Kansas — when you don’t choose a school you’re going to have backlash,” Lewis said. “And you’re going to have to take it with a grain of salt.”
Michelle and Kevin Knox Sr., Kevin Knox’s father, say they have tried to use the negativity directed at their son as a learning experience.
The two told their son that not everyone will be happy with the decisions he will make, but he should “make the decision that makes God proud and your parents proud.”
Kevin Knox and his family believe he has done that.
“If I was giving a talk to a bunch of the top recruiting parents, here’s the three things I’d tell them: No. 1, be confident in the decision you made for God and your immediate family,” Kevin Knox Sr., a former Florida State football star, said. “Don’t worry about what nobody else says. And then three, for me, it’s time to go to work.”