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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga players trying to walk fine line with social media during everyday lives, NCAA Tournament

As the tenor of Gonzaga’s season changed from being 5-3 in early December to the 30-win Zags awaiting a Sweet 16 matchup with UCLA on Thursday, so has the tone on social media when players check their phones.

“I know we were getting a lot of bad ones (messages), especially at the beginning of the year,” sophomore guard Hunter Sallis said. “Now if you look at it, there’s a lot of good tweets about us. It’s funny how it’s switched up, but it’s for the better for sure.”

The Zags have certainly seen the nastier side of social media, which presents a double-edged sword for student-athletes. They’ve grown up in the social media age, so they’re accustomed to adoration that typically follows a good performance and biting criticism that rolls in if they or their team have a subpar showing.

No topic appears to be off limits.

“Oh yeah,” forward Ben Gregg said matter-of-factly when asked if he sees negative comments. “I mean, ‘Ben Gregg is the worst player on the court, Ben Gregg is the worst player in college basketball.’

“I see a lot about the hair, too. ‘Ben Gregg has the worst hair in college basketball.’ It ranges for sure.”

That range “can brighten your day or bring your whole day down,” senior forward Anton Watson said. “I try to put my phone down and watch a TV show, or if I’m going through something I talk to my family members or friends because the phone can be a dangerous thing sometimes.

“You see a lot of hate on social media and it’s really unnecessary.”

Sophomore center Efton Reid III experienced it last season when he was at LSU after setting a legal screen in a game against Kentucky.

“People were like, ‘I hope you die,’ ” he said. “It was crazy, not so much on Twitter but Instagram, there were some fans that reached out to me. It happens and people really don’t realize it happens more than you think.”

Student-athletes are in the second year of being able to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL). According to study of 1,100 Division I athletes last year by Bill Carter, who teaches an NIL class at the University of Vermont, nearly 75% of their NIL agreements are from social media posts and content creation.

Broken down, social media (influencers, content creation, brand promotion) accounted for 72% of commercial activity, endorsements 10%, appearances 7%, instruction 5%, merchandise sales 4% and autograph signings 2%.

“I’ve been looking at this recently, it’s both positive and negative,” Reid said of social media’s impact on student-athletes. “With the whole NIL thing, social media is big for us because the bigger the social media following, probably the more money you’re going to make potentially.

“Negatively, especially with my generation, it’s bad for us because we’re always on it. It’s an addiction, like sugar, everyone’s low-key addicted to sugar but no one knows it. Some people might get freaked out, they can’t pick up their phone. They get anxiety, depression and all the other things.”

The physical and/or mental toughness required to defend a talented opponent, absorb a charging foul or stay positive when the numbers of the scoreboard aren’t pretty probably come in handy when a student-athlete reaches for their phone shortly after a March Madness game.

“If you don’t have haters that means you’re not doing something right, that’s how I take it,” sophomore point guard Nolan Hickman said. “I’ll like the comment sometimes if I see it, just to be petty. I understand they’re not in my shoes, so they wouldn’t really know. I just try to take it with a grain of salt.”

“You know sometimes I am (tempted to respond), they push me to the edge a little bit, but I never do,” Sallis said. “I keep my cool and composure.”

Make no mistake, players are going to peek at their phones, even with unflattering commentary likely to appear on the screen. Reid said he’s on his phone about six hours a day and sometimes eight hours on school days, “which is bad for me,” he acknowledged.

Junior wing Julian Strawther wouldn’t reveal his average screen time, but “it’s probably way too high. If coach (Mark) Few saw my numbers, he’d probably take my phone away.”

Bettors, presumably on the wrong side of a game’s outcome, usually author many of the negative messages directed at players.

“Mess with their money, they be getting mad,” said Watson, who mentioned 20 direct messages he received after Gonzaga didn’t cover the spread against Saint Mary’s in a regular-season game. “They were like, ‘Man, you suck at basketball, you’re the worst offensive player.’”

Added Strawther: “With the way sports gambling has blown up, a lot of the meaner tweets are me messing up people’s parlays or gambling. And they instantly resort to calling me the Vegas kid, so I’m messing up their lines because I’m from Vegas. I get a lot of them every game.”

Imagine being 20 years old, like Strawther, and knowing unseemly messages are waiting on your phone.

“With the good comes the bad, with the bad comes the good,” he said. “It’s one of those places where you have to realize what people are saying are a nonfactor on how you play. It’s someone at their house watching the game. It doesn’t bother me too much and I try to tell some of the guys to ignore that stuff if it’s getting to them.”

Gregg’s approach is rooted in common sense, but that doesn’t make it any easier when social media is so prevalent.

“I try to limit myself, but it’s definitely hard,” he said. “It’s everywhere, it’s all around us. That’s how our generation lives. That’s how we get our information.

“But after a game, I’m trying not to look at it too much. This isn’t what people around me are saying. My parents, my brothers, my family, they’re the only opinion that really matters, and the coaches, obviously. Everyone else I haven’t paid too much attention to. And when I see some (callous) tweets like that, I don’t take offense to it. It’s just someone behind a screen.”

Several Zags said they try to reduce their phone time to eliminate some of the peripheral noise.

“It’s getting intense with how March Madness is going,” Hickman said, “so I just try to stay as far from it as possible. I’ll look at it when we win it all. That’s my goal.”