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Safeguarding Athletes Online: Time For Action

Photo Credit: Ben Lumley

This week Jo Harten provided a frightening insight on living with social media abuse.

The Commonwealth Games Gold Medalist and GIANTS Netball star shared a direct message she had received on Instagram which read: “You are an ugly b**ch. You have a horrible attitude. Rot in hell. What a shame lost it for your whole team. pig!!!!!”

Jo Harten was brave enough to bring attention to this abuse by calling it out on social media. She was further supported by fellow athletes including England international, opponent and NPA Player Rep Vice Chair, Stacey Francis-Bayman:

It was only last month that the majority of the sporting world took part in a social media boycott against online abuse. A response to the ongoing and sustained discriminatory online abuse targeted at professional athletes and others in sport; abuse experienced while in their place of work. The charity Kick It Out reported that discrimination in football rose by 42% in 2019-20 and athletes across a variety of sports around the world have been speaking out about the experience of being targeted online and the impact of being exposed to toxic vitriol from the virtual stands.

Virtual abuse isn’t a new phenomenon, the most worrying aspect of this is just how common this type of abuse has become. In 2016, American golfer Paige Spiranac broke down during a live interview while talking about the abuse she was subjected to online after her performance at the 2015 Dubai Ladies Masters competition. She described the relentless barrage of vitriol she experienced through social media sites, which became a 24/7 outlet for hate by those who chose to target her online. In the aftermath, the 23-year-old athlete spoke openly of her thoughts of taking her own life and her experience of depression as a result of the abuse she was subjected to.

British tennis player Heather Watson also spoke openly of the abuse she faced which was racist, sexist and made threats toward her life. She explained how much of the abuse she experienced came from those who had gambled on her to win. Often the abuse targeting individuals threatens their physical safety and extends to threats made towards those closest to them, leaving them in fear.

Naomi Osaka’s recent withdrawal from Roland Garros came as a result of her decision not to take part in press conferences during the tournament due to the significant impact of this media obligation on her mental health. She was subsequently fined £10,574 and threatened with expulsion as well as a future ban at other major events. While many have shown support and praise to Osaka for putting her health first, others have used this as an opportunity to chastise her across virtual platforms. The court of public opinion is unregulated in virtual spaces, a place where the behaviour and decisions of athletes are often placed under a microscope.

But how does such abuse have an impact on the person at the receiving end? As shown in the examples above it is not just athletic performance than can be affected. There is now a growing number of academic studies that collectively demonstrate how the suffering caused by violence experienced online is real, tangible, and embodied.

There are undoubtedly benefits for athletes owing to the rise of social media. Athletes are able to take some control, presenting themselves and promoting their own brand or sharing their private lives in their own way, rather than through traditional mainstream media coverage. This is particularly pertinent to athletes who for many reasons have remained under-represented in the media including female athletes, women with disabilities and women of colour. Yet the positive aspects of self-presentation online have the potential to be overwhelmed when it can result in athletes being the recipients of online hate.

It certainly takes bravery for athletes to be able to confront abusers or speak out about the hate they receive online. While there is a potential to witness shifting power dynamics whereby social media provides a space to rise up collectively and speak out about a range of social issues, these remain challenging spaces to navigate and stay safe.

As articulated by the Giants Netball General Manager Tim Underwood in reference to the abuse of Jo Harten, it is clear that athletes “deserve better".

“Jo is an experienced player who will no doubt move on quickly like the champion she is, but she’s done the right thing by calling this incident out.

“Not every athlete has the tools to deal with such vitriol and abuse like this can do serious damage to the mental wellbeing of athletes.

“No matter what you think of the athlete or the result, behaviour like this has no place in our game or in sport more broadly.”

It is certainly time to do more to protect the performers who we love to watch on our screens. So far, the human cost has been on the mental well-being of athletes, resulting in poor performance or withdrawal from the sport. We shouldn’t wait for a more tragic outcome in order to take this form of athlete abuse more seriously.

As part of our ongoing work with the PPF we are discussing with other Player Associations how to best support athletes who receive online abuseIf. If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog, the NPA provides independent and confidential wellbeing support through a number of professional partnerships.

Written by Dr. Emma Kavanagh and Amy Cowd


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