NFL players face pressure as never before, in the digital-age surge of betting and fantasy

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FILE - Minnesota Vikings' Alexander Mattison is shown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Seattle. Mattison and the Vikings had just taken a tough loss earlier this season when the veteran running back checked his social media accounts and found dozens of hateful and racist messages directed toward him in relative digital anonymity.(AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

EAGAN, Minn. – Alexander Mattison and the Minnesota Vikings had boarded the flight home after a tough loss earlier this season, when the fifth-year running back found dozens of hateful and racist messages directed toward him on social media.

Criticism for the fumble he lost or his lack of rushing yards in the game? Fine. That comes with the job. But the trolling that night was so egregious that Mattison, after conferring with a trusted friend and fellow Black teammate, decided to push back and share some screen shots.

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“Under my helmet, I am a human, a father, a son,” Mattison posted on Instagram in his lament and challenge to the 60-plus users to reflect on their words and the harm they can inflict. “This is sick.”

The intensity of NFL fandom that increased with the surge of fantasy football participation around the turn of the century has spiked further in the age of online betting.

“When you used to lose, you would hear about it because of a fan’s loyalty to the team. They want to win. Now you hear about it because they’re losing their money because of you,” Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff said.

The accessibility of social media has put players in position to feel that ferocity as never before, and that's one reason why the league has a wellness program for these uniquely high-profile employees.

“We’ve come to a place in society, unfortunately, where we think it’s acceptable to dehumanize people. I think that veil of anonymity online creates that culture or that belief that it’s OK to go after people with impunity, but I think that we have to consider the impact on athletes,” said Dr. Brownell Mack, the team clinician for the Vikings. “We see them in armor. They wear the helmets and the padding, and we think that they’re somehow invincible or don’t have feelings.”

The contrast between those ups and downs in public approval rating can be particularly jarring.

“I was a Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee. I’d like to think of myself as a pretty good dude. But I pushed my backup quarterback last year. That went viral,” Vikings left guard Dalton Risner, referring to a sideline confrontation during his time with the Denver Broncos. “It was an all-out brawl, how I got made out to be as a guy. Woo, man. That’s a good example of how you’ve got to be able to ride the wave of this whole deal and keep even-keeled.”

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Drew Lock learned this as a freshman at Missouri, when he eagerly soaked up the praise after a win in his first start and had his eyes opened to the opposite after a lopsided loss the following week.

“I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is a roller coaster of, ’You’re the best and you’re the worst,'" Lock said. “Once I cleared through that first year I was like, ‘I’m done with it. I've got to stay away.’”

Mack and his colleagues with other clubs regularly counsel players through mental health challenges that can quickly arise in this tension between the fame, fortune and privilege of playing a game for a living and the scrutiny surrounding such short careers.

Rookies across the NFL each summer aren't just trying to memorize their playbooks. They attend a required symposium and receive skills training in areas such as decision-making and stress management.

“We're trying to put our best foot forward on the field, but people are going to mess up,” Vikings cornerback Akayleb Evans said. “You’re not always going to be at your best every game. People just have to realize the human side of everything."

Social media is the proverbial double-edged sword. That's the easiest way for players to show their human side to the world. But that's where the danger lurks too.

“I’ve just got to understand that I’m doing something that only a small percentage of people get to do. It’s what comes with this game," Dallas Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse said. “Before I was here, this came with it. After I’m gone, it’s going to be the same thing that comes with it.”

The people on the other side of the screen are often grappling with the same realities. Matt Rigby manages a high-maintenance fantasy keeper league with friends and relatives, an intense hobby he fits in behind raising a family, working as a data scientist and coaching high school football in North Carolina.

“I’ve had Deebo Samuel on my team for six years. He’s like my brother at this point," Rigby said. "So when he doesn’t perform well, and I know that I speak for other people in the league on this too, I think we spend far too much time trying to get into the personal life. There’s like a disappointment in the player simply because of the fantasy outlook.”

Rigby recalled a recent season when another participant was down on San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle because his receiving production had waned even though the offense was thriving.

“I’m sitting there thinking, 'I love watching Kittle right now, because he’s contributing to the game. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s got a stat line to show for it, but what is football at some point?" Rigby said. "Is it just fantasy football? Or are we watching the game as the game?”

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Chris Moore has struggled with the push and pull of social media, whether to stay on or get off, as he's progressed through his career.

“My biggest thing is if I could just tell fans directly, ‘We’re people like you. I have a wife and a daughter, another one on the way. I go home to them," Moore said. "I just want to provide for them, see them, and this is just an avenue for me to do that.’”


AP Pro Football Writers Schuyler Dixon in Frisco, Texas, and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., and AP Sports Writers Tim Booth in Renton, Wash., and Larry Lage in Allen Park, Mich., contributed.



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