By Dan Bernstein
Much of what we hear and see regarding fans’ interactions with athletes is a downer, whatever latest outpouring of bile toward a player for coming up short in the moment, opting for greener pastures in free agency or holding an opinion that makes people uncomfortable.
We’re already too used to videos of lighter-fluid-soaked jerseys set aflame, feverish screeds fired off to those who missed a shot or dropped a ball, those accused of being “traders” now with another team explaining in vain that it is merely their job, vitriol over someone being as much an outspoken citizen as dutiful performer, and the college signing day phenomenon of grown adults attacking 17-year-olds for wanting to go to a certain college. It’s just how things work on social media.
Until the script is flipped, and everybody wins.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton rescued the Buffalo Bills from yet another missed postseason when he connected with receiver Tyler Boyd on a 4th and 12 with 45 seconds remaining to beat the Ravens Sunday and secure the Bills’ playoff spot. Video of the Buffalo postgame locker room reacting as they watched on TV went viral immediately, and the long-suffering fanbase saluted Dalton for his heroics.
Some even began to express their gratitude tangibly, by donating to his charitable foundation that helps seriously ill children and their families with medical expenses in Cincinnati and Fort Worth. A popular donation level was $17, a dollar for every year it had been since the Bills had last been a playoff team. Dalton recognized the generosity and took to Twitter with a video to describe what his organization does and encourage more to help. As of the latest reports, the effort has resulted in over $250,000 coming in from around 10,000 donors, an amount that exceeded their annual fundraising goal in just days.
It is not new for athletes to raise money for various individual causes, but what’s different about this response is that it is a specific reward for performance on the field, and that’s a precedent well worth setting. All the back-slaps and attaboys expressed are nice, of course, but it becomes a next-level pursuit to let a third party benefit when somebody comes through in a way that makes your day.
More than just the opposite of negative social media fan expression — the garden-variety distillation of “You let me down, and my own sense of self worth is disproportionally contingent on the success of a sports team, so now I’m lashing out at you” — this becomes a far more meaningful way to interact. And it wasn’t just Dalton.
Rams running back Todd Gurley had the kind of season that benefited fantasy owners spectacularly, posting 1305 yards rushing, 64 catches for 788 receiving yards and 19 total touchdowns. Those who turned Gurley’s production into their own winnings gave back by donating to Shriners Hospitals for Children, which Gurley publicized during the NFL “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign. The hospitals announced that they had received $33,000 as of Tuesday afternoon.
The specific custom of a charitable thanks to fantasy football stars was believed to have been originated a year ago by Las Vegas Review-Journal Raiders beat writer Michael Gehlken, who tweeted a list of 2016 fantasy stars along side the favored charity of each. He did the same this year on Christmas Eve, and the tweet has now marked over 15 million total impressions.
It’s not even the equivalent of a big winner at a casino table sliding a couple chips over to the dealer, who happened to be there for the hot streak, because it works to help those in need who are not even directly involved.
Here’s hoping for much more of this kind of thing, with fans acting on this desire to pay it forward after somebody does something that makes them happy, either helping their team win a game or their fantasy team win them money. It’s a propagation of victory, a sharing of success with others that elevates the entire enterprise.