The world could do with more athletes like Sonny Bill Williams. Through his social media presence, Williams has added a calming voice of compassion and tolerance to the cesspit of hate that is the internet.
Rarely does the 33-year-old All Black veer into negativity or participate in confrontational callout culture. Instead, he preaches love and empathy, like an extremely online philosopher sitting cross-legged atop his Twitter pulpit, dropping bites of wisdom for his 800,000 followers.
What has garnered Williams – the most followed Kiwi athlete on Twitter – so much goodwill and support is his authenticity. He seems to be a fun-loving family man with a genuine passion for social justice, and backs it up through his actions offline (and off-field). His social media feeds are the motivational posters for sports fans of the logged on generation. He's the ultimate millennial All Black.
But last night – after reading one too many things about himself on the internet – Williams strayed from his usual social media thoughtfulness and hit out at some of his critics.
"And for those that say I'm under pressure playing a game that I enjoy. Get your priorities right," he said in a pair of aggrieved tweets after clearly spending too much time online. "Look at what's going on in the world. Starving children, the single mother raising three kids, the atrocities refugees are facing around the world, racism. This is what I call pressure."
I find it very interesting when so called “private” conversations end up in the media.— Sonny Bill Williams (@SonnyBWilliams) July 31, 2019
“I have more respect for a man who lets me know where he stands, even if he's wrong. Than the one who comes to me as an angel and is nothing but a devil” - Malcom X
And for those that say I’m under pressure playing a game that I enjoy. Get your priorities right. Look at what’s going on in the world. Starving children, the single mother raising 3 kids, the atrocities refugees are facing around the world, racism. This is what I call pressure.— Sonny Bill Williams (@SonnyBWilliams) July 31, 2019
It's hard to disagree with what Williams advocates for in that second part of the tweet. It's always heartening when athletes use their platform to try and change things.
This time, however, Williams didn't seem to be standing up for social justice. He was standing up for himself. While the tweet collected thousands of likes and retweets, it also wielded one of the internet's favourite weapons: the strawman.
What was his point? Was he trying to say that he doesn't feel pressure in sport because he cares about society's most vulnerable? Does he enjoy rugby so much that he doesn't feel pressure at all? Was he telling his critics to worry about the things that actually matter instead of opining about his World Cup chances?
The problem with Williams' tweet – especially if you're the All Blacks selectors – was not that he didn't "stick to sports", that he decided to stick up for himself, or even that he tweets too much. It was that it felt defensive – almost like he was leveraging social issues as a shield for personal criticisms (or perhaps his own nerves?).
It didn't feel like the calm and collected SBW we've gotten used to seeing on social media; he's not usually this combative. He hasn't looked like his confident self on the field lately either. It read like an athlete who was over-analysing and in his own head. It's almost as if he was feeling out of sorts, like he felt an added weight on his shoulders. There's a word for it…
The internet and the 24-hour news cycle has a particular way of breeding anxiety. I can't even imagine what it would be like when you're the one that's the topic of conversation. But sometimes all you can do is log off, put your head down and try to move on. Early last month, Williams tweeted a piece of advice for his followers: "Don't be the person whose self worth is dependent on people's respect." Maybe it's time Williams took his own advice.
Most of us will agree that there are more important things in life than sport. But people are also capable of caring about both sport and social justice – Williams is a prime example.
We also know – from his social media persona at least – that Williams is a good guy. But is he a good All Black? Well, the last few years would suggest that the jury is still out.
Williams has been one of the finest All Blacks we've seen in the last decade or so, revolutionising his position with a combination of truly elite athleticism and cross-code sporting skill, not to mention his air-tight defence or that trademark offload.
But what we've also witnessed lately is the slow decline of an athlete whose body hasn't kept up with his desire to push himself. Williams has consistently struggled with injuries in recent years, and has played only 38 competitive rugby games since the last World Cup in 2015.
It hasn't gone unnoticed by All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen who said Williams will need to prove himself over the coming weeks. "We've got a lot of respect for Sonny's playing ability, obviously," Hansen said. "He's played 52 tests for the All Blacks, so we know he can play at this level. The unfortunate thing is he hasn't played much."
I wonder what Hansen thought about Williams' latest tweets.
Regardless of whether he makes it to Japan, Williams will probably continue to be a positive influence on social media and society in general.
That's why the world needs Sonny Bill Williams. But do the All Blacks?