Alexander Mattison isn't quitting social media.
Akayleb Evans did.
The two Vikings players chose different paths in navigating the negative impacts of the platforms that are big business for the NFL and its players but can open them up to harassment that is harmful to their mental health.
Mattison showed that dark side recently, when he shared on Instagram what he said was one of 60-plus "disgustingly disrespectful messages" following the Vikings' Week 2 loss in Philadelphia. The message included multiple racial slurs aimed at Mattison, who is Black, and told him to kill himself.
Teammates voiced support for Mattison, saying they all must set boundaries and avoid online strains on mental health. Social media offers often unregulated channels of anonymous praise and hatred. It can also connect fans with their favorite players and galvanize support in ways never done before.
"You don't have to look at it," Vikings receiver K.J. Osborn said, "but in this day and age, that's where a lot of stuff is."
Mattison said he won't be deterred in "spreading light" on social media, whether that's chatting up random fans, giving away tickets or exposing hateful remarks that he said are often fantasy football related.
"If anything, it just lights a fire in me to continue to do more," Mattison said, "and show people how human we are as much as they try to dehumanize us."
The Vikings' most amplified player, receiver Justin Jefferson, has 1.6 million followers on Instagram, trailing only the Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns among local pro athletes.
"I'm glad that he did it," Jefferson said of Mattison. "It's not easy what we do every single week, risking our bodies to perform at the best of our abilities. But when we go away from football and we go home to our families, friends and we look on the phone and we get those types of messages? And get that type of hatred? That's not something we want to face."
'Our brain is wired to remember'
Evans, the second-year cornerback, had to step away from social media during his rookie season.
Evans, 24, was a 2022 fourth-round pick who started two games but made three trips through the concussion protocol. He said he was battling some "mental demons" and life circumstances that weren't helped by reading what others thought about his play.
His temporary break became semi-permanent. Evans, once a prolific poster on X — formerly known as Twitter — to nearly 50,000 followers, seldom engages online now. That's the balance that works for him.
"I've had multiple times where I talk to my people like, 'I want to use social media like everybody else,' " Evans said. "But you have to realize the job we have — we can't. It's a sacrifice, but it's a good sacrifice."
The Vikings have three licensed mental health professionals available weekly to players. For athletes of all levels, online harassment in an already pressure-fueled world can be damaging, said Dr. Matthew Mikesell, a licensed psychologist with Premier Sport Psychology, based in Edina.
"There's an access people have to make comments that they didn't have 15 years ago," Mikesell said. "Our brain is wired to remember those negative things; our brain is wired to remember the harmful and hateful things that are said way more than those positive things or things that are reinforcing. They stick with us."
Social media companies such as X; Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook; and YouTube, which is owned by Google, have been criticized for not regulating hate speech through punishment or prevention.
Players' loved ones are just as affected. Mattison said his wife, father and brother felt like they needed to defend him online.
"It's taken a toll where they don't want to see that," said Mattison, who got help from the NFL Players Association to filter his direct messages with keywords. "They don't want to have to go back and forth with these people. But it's hard not to take certain things personal."
The NFL last year claimed to reach over 600 million fans on social media platforms and has used those platforms to expand globally, such as starting an NFL Africa account on X in August 2021.
The NFL Players Association both sells its players via social media and educates them about it. The union's annual "Influencer Hot List" ranks players by social media performance on X and Instagram; Jefferson was third this season.
The star receiver hasn't yet signed a $100 million extension, but businesses already treat his brand like he's one of the game's highest-paid players. Advertisements for Oakley, Little Caesars and Under Armour are just a few ways he gets paid when messages are pushed out to his millions of Instagram followers via a marketing company partnered with his agency WME.
Jefferson, 24, said he does all personal posting using tips from marketers on how to organize his content between Twitch, TikTok, Instagram, X, Facebook and YouTube.
"To make sure I'm not bundling it all up in one," he said.
Social media is no less important for lesser-known players. Vikings long snapper Andrew DePaola, the All-Pro selection and team elder at 36, runs DePaola's Bagel and Brunch in Maryland. Advertisements on Instagram, Facebook's localized groups and Nextdoor are his small business' "main form of marketing," he said.
Players' online conduct is judged before they even get into the NFL.
Teams scour social media when searching through college prospects. Player agents do the same. Chris Gittings, an agent for One West Sports Group, said he uses social media to help identify clients who fit the company's values.
Once players enter the league, they get a handful of presentations about social media management. Players can get fined at least $10,000 by the league if they're posting 90 minutes before kickoff or during a game.
The Vikings conduct rookie trainings that include stress management and dealing with racism and harmful online interactions.
"Social media comes up," said team clinician Dr. Brownell Mack, "and I know I've cited Herm Edwards' example when he used to talk to players at the rookie symposium about 'Don't press send.' "
Safety Josh Metellus said he learned in four years playing for the University of Michigan that even his then-collegiate status meant a different online presence.
"We're not regular people on there," Metellus said. "We can't just say whatever we want and have no consequences. Whatever we say on social media, whatever we portray on social media is what the world is going to see us as. It's, 'How do you maneuver it?' Some guys have a better handle on it than others. There's some guys who don't realize how much it can hurt until it does."
Finding a balance
Osborn and Mattison are among the Vikings players who like social media because they can uplift and connect with passionate fans.
Mattison, who has nearly 130,000 followers on Instagram, said he will pick random fans and respond to their direct messages when he has the time. Through his foundation, I Am Gifted, he said he is giving away tickets via social media to a family for Sunday's game against the Chargers.
"It's just awesome to make somebody's day," Mattison said.
But players said their relationships with social media evolved early in their careers.
Evans, who is Black, said he had "wake-up moment" as a senior at Missouri when he received an anonymous racist message after a loss to Army in a postseason game.
"The message was supposed to be sent to somebody else because I didn't even play in our bowl game," Evans said.
Safety Camryn Bynum, 25, said he and his college teammates at Cal talked about avoiding "compliments poison," or buying into online praise they received. He said that allows him to ignore anonymous criticism.
"Knowing fans are going to say whatever they want from their fake accounts with no profile picture," Bynum said. "There's really no way of tracing it and no way of avoiding it. But I'm glad Alex did speak up, because that's something everybody gets. If you have one bad play, they'll get in your DMs talking crazy."
Mattison and other players have called for accountability, saying people shouldn't be allowed to "hide behind" anonymity. The hateful message he shared came from an Instagram account with 20 followers and no profile picture.
But Mattison isn't stepping into the shadows. He said he is driven to see the positives through the negatives on social media.
"It's important for me to kind of voice that, through it all, we're still human," Mattison said. "We're still compassionate people, still caring, loving people. It's one of those things where I just figure out how to filter out that negative stuff and continue to use my platform to shine a positive light in the world."