FOOTBALL

Gators' Copeland, Valentino learn to ignore unqualified social media critics

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida receiver Jacob Copeland has learned how to handle critics.

The internet may be wondrous, but it can also be a nasty place — if you don’t believe me, check the mentions of the Florida football players after a loss. 

Whether it be anything from demeaning messages to questions regarding ability, student-athletes have faced it — though, of course, that’s not every commenter; social media can also be wholesome and beneficial, it can bring people together and keep people connected. 

It also can play a role — positively or negatively — in someone’s mental health, a topic athletes generally haven’t felt comfortable discussing openly until recently. 

Florida wide receiver Jacob Copeland, who has the largest Twitter following on the team (33.7K) and the largest overall social media profile, has received more than his share of criticism since arriving in Gainesville, whether it be from Florida fans following a mistake or from rival fanbases, like when he spurned Alabama and Tennessee on live TV on Signing Day. 

But at this point, Copeland doesn’t listen to any of the noise. 

He used to, he admits, but not anymore, as he’s come to the realization most of his detractors haven’t walked a mile in his shoes and therefore their opinion is anything but qualified. 

"I wouldn't say take social media too seriously. Because, there's a lot of people on there that will say this and that about you and never touched the football field, never lift a weight or never did the things that you did in your life to be in the position you're in now. So, that's what I had to realize as I got older,” Copeland said. “So the fans, the critics that talk about me, about 'I ain't ready, I ain't this and that,' I don't too much care for it. I know what I do outside there on that practice field, and just go along with that. So anyone that lives by that, social media, I don't too much care for it."

After all, it’s typically just someone in front of a computer screen or on their phone, acting tough from the comfort of their home. 

Most offenders wouldn’t dare repeat the texted vitriol when in the company of Copeland or his teammates, and that’s ultimately how many in a student-athletes’ position think when it comes to social media criticism. 

“I get on the internet to like have fun and like look at stupid stuff and laugh and send memes to my friends and stuff like that,” said defensive lineman Antonio Valentino. “But, of course, you’re going to run into the occasional weirdo, that’s just always like, ‘bro, what’s the point of being negative on the internet?’ Because it’s like I find comfort in the fact that you probably wouldn’t say that to me in person.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s emotionally invulnerable when it comes to social media, or that all criticism is invalid. And this isn’t his first go-around. 

Before he arrived in Gainesville, Valentino had already been through the ringer when it came to social media. 

In 2019, while playing for Penn State, Valentino called out fans who crossed the line following a 45-13 win over Buffalo. 

“If we spoke to somebody how some people spoke to my teammates tonight, it would be a serious issue,” Valentino posted on his Twitter account. “If you have all the answers. I invite you to get into coaching. Or, come do what we do for a day and then have an opinion.”

Later that season, Valentino was ejected for spitting on a Michigan State player during a 28-7 win. He apologized on Twitter after the game, but not before fans from both fanbases let him have it.

As further punishment, Valentino was suspended from No. 4-ranked Penn State’s upcoming game against No. 8-ranked Minnesota, arguably the team’s biggest game of the season as both teams were 8-0 and vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Minnesota came away with the 31-26 victory, effectively quashing the Nittany Lions’ hopes of making their first playoff. 

Valentino felt guilty, and he still shoulders the blame, which can make it hard to block out the messages that make him recall the pain. 

“You know, I cost my team a possibility at the College Football Playoff, we were in the top four at that time. That’s something I had to sit with, something I had to live with,” Valentino said. “Obviously not something I felt very good about, still kinda something that bothers me a little bit.”

All he could do was be accountable after the fact, but that didn’t stop the wave of abuse coming in his direction. 

He reiterates there’s a line, and it’s consistently been crossed, and as Valentino has had time to dwell on it, he thinks he knows why: his achievements and his mistakes are on display for the world to see. 

In the context of the current conversation regarding mental health, the treatment athletes face online has never been a more necessary discussion. 

“I try not to dwell on the past. I’ve done a lot of growing since then and I realize it’s just one of those things,” Valentino said. “I made a mistake, everybody makes mistakes, not dodging accountability or anything like that. However, I do find it interesting that people are very quick to vilify people who — everybody makes mistakes, the only difference is I made my mistake on TV, and obviously it had great consequences.”