Niyo: Out-of-bounds rant targeting Michigan’s Bell another sign of the times

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Bum’s the word after a loss like the one Michigan just suffered at Penn State.

At least that’s the sort of derogatory comment that routinely gets thrown at college athletes like Ronnie Bell, the sophomore receiver whose dropped fourth-down pass in the end zone helped seal the Wolverines’ fate in a 28-21 defeat Saturday night.

After the cameras captured Bell’s distraught reaction to the way that nationally televised game ended, his inbox captured something else. It was an expletive-laced email from a fan and recent UM alum telling him, among other things, to “please quit the team already,” and it prompted the receiver’s father, Aaron Bell, to post the message on his own social-media accounts in a plea for civility.

And while the backlash to that message has been fierce, it still begs the question that was asked of some of Bell’s teammates and his coach on Monday, as the Wolverines returned to practice with another prime-time game looming Saturday against No. 8 Notre Dame at Michigan Stadium.

Michigan wide receiver Ronnie Bell

Simply put, how do you process something like that? Because even if it’s hardly representative of a fan base, it’s far more common than most folks realize. (Just a couple weeks earlier, Penn State safety Jonathan Sutherland was on the receiving end of a racist letter from one of his school's alums that an outraged teammate made public.)

“It’s like, 'OK, if he catches the ball, you love him, he drops the ball, you hate him?' That makes no sense,” said Carlo Kemp, one of Michigan’s senior captains. “It’s upsetting. It’s hard, because it’s one of my teammates. It’s tough to hear stuff like that.”

Sending a juvenile, hate-filled email to a college athlete and including your name and phone number is a rather bold form of stupidity, I think we can all agree about that.

And as Jim Harbaugh noted Monday, calling out the recent UM alum by name since he’d already doxxed himself in what Harbaugh presumed was a drunken rant, “I’m sure the next day he was like, ‘Why the heck did I do that? I’m an idiot.’ I’m sure he probably felt pretty bad about it.”

But that’s social media for you, these days. For all it’s wonderful benefits — insert eyeroll here — it’s also a wasteland full of ridicule and regret.

Not worth the click

That’s why you’ll often hear coaches like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo railing against it. (‘I don’t think social media is helpful to any human being on the planet,” he once said. “And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”) It’s also why some athletes — college and pro — decide to opt out of it once they discover the depths it reaches, anonymously or otherwise.  

Count Ben Bredeson, also one of Michigan’s senior captains, among that group. He says he steers clear of social media as much as possible, and occasionally he’ll suggest to some of his teammates that they do the same.

“But it’s a losing battle,” he admits with a laugh. “I’m never gonna tell a guy not to be on Twitter or Instagram or whatever. It’s their choice. But definitely don’t read into it as much as some people do. There’s a lot of people out there with opinions, and sometimes the loudest voice in the room isn’t always the right one.”

Often, it’s not, which is why Harbaugh on Monday cited the old nursery rhyme — “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” he said — as he explained the message he relays to his players about ignoring the outside noise.

“You don’t have to take that to heart," he said. "What somebody else thinks about you doesn’t have to be your business.”

Some athletes court controversy on social media, but most don’t. And when innocuous posts elicit unsolicited hate, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to respond — and nearly impossible to ignore.

That’s a point Bell’s teammate, Kwity Paye, was trying to make Monday when asked about what his teammate felt over the weekend. Paye recalled some of the comments he was subjected to when he added his early commitment to what would become a star-studded 2017 recruiting class for Michigan.

“It wasn’t really a warm welcome, I would say,” Paye recalled. “A lot of people said, ‘Who is this three-star bum from Rhode Island?’ My own fans, you know? For me coming in, I was just like, ‘All right, well …’ It’s kinda hard.’

“And then I was put in the team’s group chats and immediately I felt like a family. The team consoled me, and it was like, ‘Yeah, don’t worry about the fans and stuff like that, we’re the ones that matter to you.’ And from that point on, I felt like I just took the team’s voice and I made it my own.”

Under the radar

Bell, likewise, was arguably the least-heralded recruit in Michigan’s 2018 class. (“Nobody knew who Ronnie was until he started balling,” Paye said.) But after flashing his ability as a freshman, he has emerged as Michigan’s most productive receiver this fall, leading the team with 25 receptions for 443 yards. Bell led Michigan again Saturday night, finishing with five catches for 82 yards, including a crucial third-down screen pass he turned into a 35-yard gain to set up Michigan’s final touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

“We would take as many Ronnie Bells as we could possibly get on this team,” Harbaugh said. “How far he’s come, what he does for our team, the way he played in the game — he was one of our top performers. Tough as nails. Mentally as tough as anybody we got, physically the same.”

Still, the lasting image of him in tears on the sideline at the end of that Penn State loss is a reminder of how much emotional investment there is in these games. In a twisted way, so is that email had everyone so incensed, I guess.

“That’s kinda what keeps football as popular as it is, that people have those kind of passions toward the game,” Harbaugh said.

Now that those passions get relayed so easily and so indiscriminately through various channels, though, it’s a much different head game for the players than it was when Harbaugh was in their cleats.

“But the people in the building are the only voices that we listen to,” Paye said. “People have their own opinions, but those people aren’t the ones waking up at 5 a.m. to come do our lifts. They aren’t the ones who are struggling through our spring ball. They’re not the ones that are struggling to get through classes because we have to focus on football and stuff like that.

“For the people out there who have all those things to say about our team, we don’t really care. Because at the end of the day, it’s only us that’s in there. We can only hold our brothers accountable. At the end of the day, it’s our voice.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo