Michael Arace: Death threats, racial epithets aimed at E.J. Liddell by anonymous cowards

Michael Arace
The Columbus Dispatch

Friday afternoon, Ohio State became the ninth No. 2 seed in NCAA Tournament history to lose in the first round. By dinnertime, Ohio State sophomore forward E.J. Liddell’s Twitter account was bilged with racist attacks and death threats. Just after midnight, Liddell posted screenshots of the offensive tweets — and “offensive” isn’t a strong enough descriptor here. 

Imagine you're Liddell. You’ve just lost the biggest game of your life, on national television, and before your head hits the pillow in the wee hours of the morning, you’re getting death threats. March Madness (TM), indeed. 

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“Piece of (expletive),” read one of the tweets. “You managed to do it again. You were shooting a 1 and 1 to win the game lol. You are such a (expletive) disgrace. Don’t ever show your face at Ohio State. I hope you die I really do.” 

Another tweet: “You where you from? I’ll pull up on you immediately I swear to god I want to kill you. ... ” 

There followed a string of racial epithets that can be described as hateful, although “hateful” is not a strong enough descriptor here. 

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Liddell is one of 15 semifinalists for the Wooden Award, which goes to the top college player in the country. He is a terrific player and, by all accounts, a stand-up young man. He had 23 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and one blocked shot in Ohio State’s 75-72, overtime loss to Oral Roberts. Like many of his teammates on a cursed day for the Buckeyes, he made some mistakes, and they wound up being historic. 

Since the NCAAs went to a 64-team format in 1985, nine No. 2 seeds and one No. 1 seed have been knocked out in the first round. Which is to say that Ohio State on Friday afternoon suffered one of the 10 biggest upsets in tournament history.

Liddell and the Buckeyes feel that gut-shot more acutely than anyone else, even big donors. The team has to own it. Those on the floor will carry the deepest scars, and for decades.

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Liddell posted screenshots of the death threats and racist comments that were directed at him — you can almost see him in your mind’s eye, in the wee hours of the morning, trying to process the insanity directed at him — and wrote: 

“Honestly, what did I do to deserve this? I’m human. … Comments don’t get to me but I just wanna know why. I’ve never done anything to anyone in my life to be approached like this. … This is not me saying anything negative about Ohio State fans. I love you all dearly and I’ve felt nothing but appreciated since the first day I stepped on campus.” 

Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell, putting up a shot against Oral Roberts forward Kevin Obanor, is one of 15 finalists for the Wooden Award, which goes to the top college player in the country.

Social media is touted, by social-media companies, as a forum for ideas and a place where we can all get together. It is, too, a place for faceless lurkers to spread hate, anonymously. In fact, it’s a dreamscape for haters. 

Buckeyes basketball: 'I'll never do social media': Charles Barkley reacts to online abuse aimed at Ohio State's E.J. Liddell

Outrage has become superconductor of conversation and, without eye contact, one or two angry people can gratify their twisted selves by holding sway over thousands, or millions. There little or no standard for truth — or conscience — imposed on any given troll. A small waste dump can turn into a cesspool and it's called “going viral.” 

Phalanx of Ohio State fans support E.J. Liddell

A phalanx of supporters rushed to get Liddell’s back. That is heartening. 

OSU athletic director Gene Smith and coach Chris Holtmann testified to Liddell’s character and talent (as if they had to) and promised that there would be an investigation (death threats are criminal acts, after all). A host of current and former OSU players stepped forward to lock arms, electronically, with Liddell. Solid.

The “I’m human” proclamation resonated online. Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Justin Turner was among a host in the Twitterverse to ask, “When are we going to stop using this platform as a place to spew hate?” Turner, who wrote three paragraphs to Liddell, and many others offered hearty encouragement and sage advice. 

Charles Barkley on TNT’s studio show had words that rang clear (and true, to this ear): 

“Guys give me a hard time because I refuse and will never do any type of social media. This is the reason why. For a kid — No. 1, he had a great game — but for you to give this kid death threats and hurl racial slurs at him because you’re safe in your own home, like a coward, behind a computer, and nobody knows who you are — you've got to take a hard look at yourself in a mirror. 

"I am never going to dignify these losers and interact with them ever. I don’t care how much money somebody offers me, I’m never going to do social media because of this. Hey, listen: I know most of the stuff is positive. But, just, why would you sit at your house and tweet, or send something to a kid? That’s No. 1. After he lost a stupid basketball game, and give him death threats or just hurl racial slurs at him? You need to take a good look in the mirror and realize you’re just a freakin’ loser.” 

Some of them look in the mirror and smile. That’s the scary part. 

marace@dispatch.com