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Is Hashtag Activism Against Sports Superstars Really Effective?

04/30/2014 12:42 EDT | Updated 06/30/2014 05:59 EDT

After an exceptionally long and cold winter, the North American sports scene exploded in a sudden heat in the last week.

First, Minnesota Wild forward Matt Cooke strayed from his public commitment to reform himself when he exacted such serious physical damage on an opponent in a playoff game that even Don Cherry was forced to call him a pariah. Next, Hockey Night in Canada's Ron MacLean extended his personal streak of offering dubious analyses via cryptic deliveries by arguing that the NHL should not have assigned a French Quebecer to officiate game four of the Montreal Canadiens-Tampa Bay Lightning playoff series.

Finally, one day before his team was to resume its first round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors, a recorded conversation went public in which LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling allegedly uttered blatantly racist comments against African Americans. In all three cases, response was swift.

In parallel to the columnists who called for Cooke's permanent expulsion from the NHL, or who excoriated MacLean and Sterling for their expressions of ignorance and racism, sports fans turned to digital media to have their say. Hockey folks took to Twitter to condemn MacLean for his xenophobia, and blogged about Hockey Night in Canada's latest instance of marginalizing the Montreal Canadiens. In the basketball world, fans, celebrities, and athletes also converged on social media platforms where they pressed the NBA to take immediate action against Sterling. As for Matt Cooke, last week's virtual celebration of his diminished reputation continues apace.

In using social media in this way, sports fans engaged in their own version of hashtag activism. And, while recent virtual uprisings against local and hugely famous media personalities outside sports have drawn much attention, this model of engagement has also been mocked for its faddish characteristics or questioned regarding its actual potentials to accomplish constructive outcomes. With this mixed record in mind, questions arise about the electronic opposition mounted by fans in response to this week's bad boys in sports.

Does digital activism against MacLean, Cooke, and Sterling provide real tools to force change? Or, is it merely a technologically-enabled show of customer-generated publicity that is either entirely self-serving or destined to be co-opted by the very sports-entertainment businesses against which its putative anger is aimed? I say the plusses win out.

Most obviously, the proliferation of discussion afforded by social media in these cases has delivered the peoples' objections to wrongdoings committed by those representing entities that are more than just business commodities or service providers, but that are heart and soul institutions in the communities to which fans belong. The relationship is neither natural nor pure, but because fans see their teams, players, and even media as embodying their community's values, the desecration of those values by sports personalities themselves can really sting.

When cultural insensitivity, racism, and bald-faced aggression were displayed this past week, there was no option for fans other than to shout back with cries of what their communities rightly stand for. In this sense, digital activism has given fans the symbolic power to take back the social discourse from those who threatened to rob it of the very standards that they hold dear.

An additional benefit of the kind of digital outcry seen this past week in sports is the community-building dynamics that it often engenders. Despite the seriousness of the grievances that spark social media mobilizations, their actual interactive dynamics result in people enjoying doing things together. So, when Twitter users try to outdo each other with the audacity of the comments they attach to a protest hashtag, or when they share gifs or videos in an effort to denude the villain of the day, they're not only raising awareness about an issue, but they're also using words, symbols, and rituals in ways that forge affective social connections. Thus, far from being merely a tactic of the selfish or the socially isolated, digital activism fuses the plaintive with the fun in the defence and establishment of temporary, but highly energized, group collectivities.

A final positive of digital uprisings emerges out of the outcomes they can achieve. It's not that racism will be shattered by hashtags. And, the managers of sports leagues or media companies aren't going to be moved to adopt fairer policies just to quell the din of a deepening digital footprint of unfavourable mentions. But, social media protest contributes to important changes, and especially for those who do it.

So, by enabling individuals to speak about their anger, and also to share their talk with others in similar positions, digital activism provides opportunities for strengthening self-awareness and self-confidence that may otherwise be blocked in peoples' lives. Viewed this way, participation in a noisy social media outcry against a boneheaded athlete, a clumsy broadcaster, or an inveterately racist team owner can partially be understood as valuable, and consciousness-changing, moments in an individual's own self-development.

Despite the upside, there are also questions about what last week's virtual action might have led us to miss. For example, has an unfair amount of doubt been declared as we dismiss Matt Cooke's efforts to change? In light of lesser-discussed perspectives, is to too simplistic to label Ron MacLean anti-French? Finally, with all that was known about Donald Sterling prior to this past weekend, are we and NBA people also not partially to blame for not taking action sooner?

The stirring up and directing of antagonisms towards identified enemies in digital activism is not without its blind spots and risks. Yet, in helping people to define what's right and wrong in their community, and by opening spaces in which group ties and individual autonomy are nurtured, hashtag activism has become quite the thing. And, in the face of some very obvious and threatening repugnance this past week, it's no surprise that sports fans jumped directly into the fray.

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