What Sports Stories Would Have Broken Twitter If It Existed at the Time?
With O.J. Simpson back in the news and all over our Twitter feeds for a parole hearing, we started wondering what other notable sports moments would have blown up on social media.
With O.J. Simpson in the news again for a random parole hearing, it's impossible not to think back to 1994-95 and the double murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, the infamous car chase, and the batshit trial that followed. The Simpson case transcended sports news to become a nationwide cultural phenomenon, and the jumping off point was Al Cowlings slowly driving that white Ford Bronco with police in pursuit. Can you imagine if Twitter and the total media saturation that the internet has unleashed upon us existed at that time? It would have been an absolute free-for-all.
With that in mind, we here at VICE Sports began wondering: What other news and events in sports history would have created an avalanche of tweets and memes and jokes and milkshake ducks had Twitter been around at the time? Or what would have just been an absolutely crazy, inescapable story that dominated the Twitter zeitgeist, where you knew you could get all the latest information about it as quickly as you possibly could?
We set out some criteria to narrow our options at least a little. First, obviously, Twitter must not have existed at the time of the event (so before 2006). The event also has to be within the past 30 years, and it has to be a specific moment, not, like, "the 2001 World Series." Here is what the staff of VICE Sports came up with, and the explanations behind our picks. Feel free to let us know which obvious ones we missed on Twitter.
Tonya Harding Taking Out Nancy Kerrigan
Tonya Harding's ex-husband and a friend hired a dude to break rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan's leg so she wouldn't be able to compete in the 1994 Winter Olympics. That is to say, Nancy and Tonya had everything. It was bizarre, it was violent, it was totally unprecedented and yet to be replicated. It had the highest possible stakes and came as the culmination of the longstanding rivalry between two American athletes already in the public eye. Social class undercurrents? Yep, those, too. Not to mention the endless and endlessly cruel meme-ability of Nancy wailing "WHYYYYYY." And the existence of a man named Jeff Gillooly. And so many Tonya Harding-related things. It was brutality with a backstory, which is the perfect recipe for a sports scandal that could have liquified the internet. — Mike Piellucci
The Malice at the Palace
I was in high school when a fight between Ben Wallace and Ron Artest morphed into Ron Artest charging into the stands of Palace of Auburn Hills to fight fans. I had just gotten home from hanging out with friends but didn't feel like going to sleep, so I turned on ESPN. I wasn't much of a basketball guy; it was maybe the second or third game I had ever watched in my life, oddly enough. But I put it on in the background while I played OG Call of Duty on my desktop. During a break between games—or maybe as I waited for the lag to settle—I heard the announcers on TV screaming. I took off my headphones and turned to the TV to see Wallace and Artest going at it. I almost turned off the TV after their initial tussle settled. I'm glad I didn't.
If an NBA player charged into the stands now, I would immediately log onto Twitter, almost instinctually. I don't think it would have taken long for the Twitter magic to do its thing, meme-ing the "oh shit" face the little white dude made as Artest roared towards him, Austin Croshere caught momentarily on camera standing perfectly still as the entire arena erupted around him, Artest getting ushered off the court by his assistant coaches who have their hands draped over his head to protect him from the projectiles fans were hurling at him, the one kid standing over the Pacers tunnel who calmly upended a full bottle of soda on them. It was all Twitter gold, every last bit. Instead, I had to experience it all alone. It was worse for that. We all were. —Aaron Gordon
Brandi Chastain Wins 1999 World Cup
Look, for all its faults, international sporting event jingoism is also the fun kind of jingoism. Is it possible to Photoshop too many majestic bald eagles around Carli Fucking Lloyd? No, no it is not. And that's why I would have highly enjoyed Twitter had it been around for the 1999 World Cup final, and specifically the penalty shootout that gave the U.S. women the trophy. World Cup Twitter is already pretty good; add in the fact that everyone was watching this game, and that it took place at a reasonable hour of the day, and you have a classic in the making. Plus, high stakes, history, etc. Granted, during regulation you would have had a bunch of people moaning about soccer being the most boring sport in the world and ohmygod why hasn't anyone scored yet, but our patience would eventually have been rewarded. I still get goosebumps watching footage from the shootout today. I'm pretty sure Twitter would have been losing its collective mind by the time Brandi Chastain stepped up to take her kick. And afterward? Solid 24-karat meme gold, in all of Brandi's be-sports-bra'd glory. We would be printing out the best ones for weeks just to make sure they survived Y2K. —Caitlin Kelly
Pedro Martinez Curving Don Zimmer
At the height of the rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens met in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS. Two hard-throwing hot heads (and Manny Ramirez) in a bitter rivalry gave birth to one of the most meme-able moments of all time. After Pedro plunked Yankee legend Karim Garcia in the fourth inning and generally taunted the Yankees in the proceeding outs, Manny Ramirez felt like a high fastball from Roger was intended as retaliation in the home half of the inning. So he charged the mound and the benches cleared.
The Yankees' tiny Popeye and general baseball legend Don Zimmer was none too pleased with Pedro, so he bullrushed him, and the Red Sox ace simply took him by his bald-ass head and spun the 72-year-old to the ground. I can't even begin to imagine what Twitter would have looked like during this, a playoff game, and also considerable downtime while the umpires tried to restore order. It would have been a neverending stream of when she just wants to be friends and tfw you get the insufficient funds notice and the impossible to recreate banter that happens in those kinds of moments. It would have been amazing.
(And I'm not too salty about it because Zim was OK, and Aaron Fucking Boone.) —Sean Newell
The Michael Jordan Shrug Game
For all its faults, sports Twitter is actually great when everyone can collectively enjoy the experience of an amazing individual sports performance. And few subsections of sports Twitter do this better than NBA Twitter. For example, NBA Twitter went crazy after Kevin Durant's eventual game-winning three-pointer against the Cavaliers in Game 3 of this year's NBA Finals.
But imagine what NBA Twitter would have been like at Michael Jordan's prime. Jordan crying at his NBA Hall of Fame induction ceremony became one of the biggest Twitter memes of all time. Jordan's actual on-the-court performance might have broken Twitter: the most famous athlete of all time, in his peak, on a worldwide social media platform.
Perhaps no Jordan moment might have captured Twitter's attention more than the famous shrug game. For those unfamiliar, Jordan and the Bulls entered the '92 Finals against the Portland Trailblazers trying to become the first repeat champions since the '89-90 Detroit Pistons. Jordan's Game 1 performance set a tone for the entire series. Jordan hit six three-pointers in the first half. After one of them, he turned toward the NBA announcer's table, where former Laker Magic Johnson was sitting, and just shrugged, as if in disbelief. It was one of the most iconic moments of an iconic career. Jordan scored 39 points in the game and the Bulls won the series in six games. —Jorge Arangure
Shaquille O'Neal Signs With the Los Angeles Lakers
The Orlando Magic blew it. Losing Shaq to the Lakers in 1996 was arguably the biggest sports front office fuck-up of the last thirty years, a free agency failure that absolutely, positively did not have to happen. Only it did, and the sheer improbability, slow-motion implosion, and ha-ha rubbernecking of it all would have been perfect for Twitter.
Let's go back in time. O'Neal was the NBA's new big thing, one of the most dominant forces in league history, a player who in his first four seasons made three All-NBA teams, was named MVP runner-up, and lead the Magic to the Finals. And Orlando had the inside track on re-signing him: not only did the franchise look like a budding dynasty thanks to the presence of Penny Hardaway, but it also was the only NBA team that could exceed the league's salary cap to pay O'Neal whatever he wanted—there were no max salaries at the time, and no luxury tax for exceeding the cap.
Yet rather than produce a blank check, the Magic low-balled O'Neal, promising him less money than Alonzo Mourning and Juwan Freaking Howard were making. Meanwhile, Jerry West and the Lakers cleared cap space to make an offer of their own, in part by trading Vlade Divac for the rights to a rookie named Kobe Bryant. Rather than aggressively counter, Orlando continued to nickle-and-dime O'Neal—eventually alienating him so badly that bolted for Los Angeles, ruining the Magic and revitalizing the Lakers.
On Twitter, this would have been Peak NBA Free Agency—as big as The Decision, crazier than the DeAndre Jordan Affair, fodder for snark and analysis and 1,000 little deaths by Wojbomb. There would have been twists and turns, rumors and leaks, and at least one contrarian Tweetstorm arguing that #actually losing O'Neal was the smart play for the Magic. It's a pity we only had newspapers and SportsCenter. —Patrick Hruby
Twitter is not for good things. Twitter is for amplifying the worst of us: shameless self-promotion, baseless speculation, and unproductive meanness. That's why Bill Buckner's error in the 1986 World Series would have been the perfect Twitter moment. There's the play itself, torturous and slow. Then there is the fallout. Millions of online Boston fans yelling into the void until two days later, the Mets put them out of their misery, continuing a decades-long World Series drought. —Eric Nusbaum
Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes Burns Down Andre Rison's House
When Atlanta Falcons receiver Andre Rison returned to his suburban Atlanta home at five in the morning on the night of June 8, 1994, he was "very sober." This is what he told People Magazine, anyway, although that makes it just one of the perspectives worth considering in the story of how his girlfriend of 15 months, TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, came to burn down the house they shared.
Rison told People that Lopes had been drinking, and that she began laying into him first with words and then "blows to the face" before he even got inside; he told People that, once inside, he slapped her back "not to hurt her," he said, "but to calm her." The reasons for all this were unclear at the time, but also clear enough—it had to do with Rison buying dozens of pairs of sneakers for himself and none for Lopes, or it was something else; it had to do with him coming home from a club at five in the morning, or it didn't; it involved at least one heroically inebriated counterparty, or two, or more.
Anyway, what followed the disputed dispute is the sort of act that defies ambiguity. Lopes set fire to Rison's new sneakers in an upstairs bathroom, and that fire wound up consuming Rison's 15,000-square-foot home and burning nearly everything he owned. While the house burned, Lopes used the pipe from a vacuum cleaner to smash the windows and windshields in Rison's cars. In the People story, datelined June 27, Rison was already talking about reconciliation. "I have cried a lot," he said. "But I can't say that I've shed one tear for the house. I can replace a house, but I can't replace the life I had, or a certain girl." The two were still a couple, albeit of the intermittent and consistently combative kind, when Lopes died in a car accident in Honduras, in 2002.
There is a lot here; none of it is uncomplicated and most of it is unsettling. The parts of it that would have appeared in blaring capital letters between ellipses in a TMZ headline had it happened ten years later are what they are, and they are dramatic—one of the most talented and popular musicians of the moment, a Pro Bowl receiver on the swaggiest and highest-profile seven-win teams in NFL history, an $800,000 home cratered by flames. The rest of it, the grottier parts that the ellipses conceal, is both more bleak and more familiar—a highly conspicuous rolling blackout of shitfaced public fights and domestic violence and dropped charges.
Relationships like this, the kind that are too big to be safe for anyone involved, have always been around, and always been a part of celebrity culture. This one, both the apotheotic arson and the innumerable smaller public conflagrations, would have been inescapable in our current media age, and three times as loud. Those concealing ellipses would be asked to do a tremendous amount of work. That part, at least, hasn't changed. —David Roth
When Dale Earnhardt Crashed at Daytona
I grew up in a family who loves race cars—watching them, building them, and even driving them—but I've never considered myself a fan of racing. Loud cars driving fast while making left hand turns was never my thing, unless the cars crashed, flipped, tires went flying, or fires had to be put out. Only then did I find racing kinda cool. But for my family, racing was a way of life and, whether I liked it or not, I had to be around it enough to where I knew Jeff Gordon drove a rainbow car, Tony Stewart was a hot-headed jerk, and Dale Earnhardt Sr. was the best.
I was only nine years old when Earnhardt Sr. crashed into a wall during the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, and although I most likely would not have been active on Twitter if it had existed then, I can only imagine what it would have been like, from the excitement of the final lap, to the initial reaction following what looked like a routine crash, to debating about if he could come back and win it next season, to rumors developing over his condition, to trying to confirm his death, to mourning and remembering. It wasn't happening on Twitter then, but it was happening on different TV channels and over the phone as my relatives called each other to ask if they saw or heard what had happened. I remember being really sad because everyone around me was sad—but not "#RIP to the legend" sad, more like crying and in shock sad.
If Twitter had existed in 2001, it would be more than just the racing and NASCAR community sharing their condolences. Everyone would be commenting on the death of one of the greatest, even if they didn't know that he drove a No. 3 car or had a trademark mustache and wore sunglasses that were way too big for his face. Twitter would have been painted red, black, and white and his face or the iconic No. 3 would be used as profile pictures for years to come. But Twitter didn't exist, so instead we are left finding the occasional "In Memory" sticker plastered on the back of a pick-up truck next to a confederate flag decal. —Karisa Maxwell
The Death of Len Bias
No player in the history of basketball went from being "the future" to "the past" faster than Len Bias, the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft who died of a cocaine overdose two days after he became a Boston Celtic. Bias was like a shredded, 6'8" Charles Barkley, with a commercial and on-court appeal that veered near Michael Jordan's orbit.
Everything about his death would shatter Twitter, though analogizing it to something more current is almost impossible. College basketball players are no longer prepackaged stars (Bias spent four seasons at the University of Maryland and was the ACC Player of the Year as a junior and senior) and, several generations later, this country is simultaneously numb to and better informed about the aftermath of drug use.
But if it somehow did happen today, the actual news of Bias's death would eventually be replaced by nauseating debates over the cultural aftershock. Numerous scandals would rain for months, with daily revelations about his agent's actions—how much money Bias was allowed to spend in the months leading up to his death—the criminal trial involving his teammates to uncover where the cocaine came from, the simultaneous coverup and gross neglect by Maryland, men's basketball coach Lefty Driesell, and the NCAA, how congress should respond (lol), and on and on.
Everyone would get dragged through the mud, because nothing synthesizes the elements of a catastrophe and transforms them into a giant cesspool more effectively than Twitter. To this day, imagining how Bias's career would've played out is a gut punch. Dealing with such a regrettable tragedy live, on Twitter, would be so much worse.
Update: We are going to drop good suggestions in here as they come in, and honestly, we should all be fired for forgetting these first two: