‘Social media and our sportspeople – the pleasure and the pain’

  Sporting Compass: With Dr Pippa Grange and Paul Oliver

Dr Pippa GrangePaul Oliver

As a sports psychologist and founder of Bluestone Edge, I am fortunate to have many conversations with people about the substance and meaning of sport.
My colleague Paul Oliver also engages with people at all levels across the sporting sector to keep his finger on the pulse of the latest news, views and issues.

In this space each fortnight, we will share some of these stories, insights and possibilities in relation to people, culture, ethics and leadership in sport. I hope you enjoy the conversation and we look forward to hearing your thoughts.

All the best, Pippa and Paul


‘Social media and our sportspeople – the pleasure and the pain’

27 March 2014
Category:   ETHICS AND INTEGRITY – what should we do?
Paul Oliver

Fans targeting professional players, and players targeting other players with abuse, is not new and has a long history in Australian sport. On any particular weekend at local sporting fields around the country there will also invariably be cases of taunts by players, bullying by spectators, and parents yelling verbal abuse at kids.

Thankfully sport has moved to address this type of behavior through spectator codes of behavior, fines, membership cancellations and complaints processes being available to seek redress. Public attitudes have also changed in that abuse and discrimination is not regarded as ‘a part of the game’ anymore or something you do on a Saturday afternoon to ‘let off steam’. However, as with many forms of vitriol, when you shut it down in one medium it seems to crop up in another. This somewhere else is now social media.

Sportspeople in particular, are increasingly being subjected to vile, insidious abuse, harassment and discrimination on every basis – whether it’s race, gender, disability, sexuality, age, ethnicity, religion. Admittedly, some athletes have got themselves into trouble for sending discriminatory tweets or Facebook messages, but the vulgar and vicious messages directed at many sportspeople via social media and its many forms has grown exponentially in recent times and shows no signs of abating.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and blogs are immensely powerful platforms that sports teams and sportspeople have flocked to in numbers in recent years, due to their unique ability to provide exclusive real-time connections with fans that they now expect. London 2012, for example, was dubbed the Socialympics; there were 100 billion posts on Facebook, 5 billion tweets on Twitter and 650,000 photos shared on Instagram.1 Australian sports have also caught the bug – the NRL’s Brisbane Broncos have a Facebook army of 274,000 (44,000 more than any club in Australia), while AFL powerhouse Collingwood has the biggest Twitter following (nearly 46,000). 2

The free flow of information results in a lot of positive support, but also provides an open forum for the public, fans and athletes, to vent their opinions and criticisms on Facebook, Twitter and on blogs. And when built up passion, excitement, disappointment and anger combine on social media, the results can be simply disgraceful. In 2013, National Rugby League star Greg Inglis was attacked via social media with a vile racist diatribe. Queensland State of Origin coach Mal Meninga (in The Sunday Mail, 28 July 2013) summed up the senselessness of this act and the enduring pain it inflicts:

“Look at your own children this morning and ask yourself how you and they would feel if we woke up in a world tomorrow where green eyes, or blonde hair, or freckles – of whatever physical characteristic they may have – made them the target for abuse from people they had never even met. People who could not be bothered taking the time to get to know them, but spent their lives believing and telling your child they were a lesser human being because of their hair or eye colour. Imagine the hurt you would feel seeing your child abused for something so trivial that makes no difference to the quality of the character. And imagine the pain and loneliness being poured upon your child by being made to feel inferior by the stupidity of others. It is a ridiculous premise, but no more ridiculous than judging Greg or anyone else by the colour of their skin.”

Early this month, Brisbane Broncos rugby league star Ben Barba was racially abused by a Canterbury Bulldogs fan on Instagram, and in the same week, West Coast Eagles AFL star Nic Naitanui was the victim of racially abusive tweets via Twitter. Racing commentators have also identified that the aggression of punters towards jockeys on social media is escalating, citing nasty tweets directed towards them via Twitter on a weekly basis. 3

Internet trolls targeting sportswomen and sports reporters are also widespread, with the level of sexual harassment and abuse that women experience for representing their sport or merely expressing opinions on social media is disgusting. Ellyse Perry, “arguably the best female athlete in Australia”, who has played for Australia at the international level in both soccer and cricket, was subject to online harassment earlier this year on a facebook site with comments referring to why she is out of the kitchen and questions of where to find her naked on the net. As Rachael Oakes-Ash writes in Daily Life: ‘This barrage of online sexual abuse is nothing new in a world of compulsive social media with the keyboard as both sword and armour. In an age of Snap Chat and selfies, there’s a growing tendency and an open invitation to judge women based purely on their physical and sexual worth.’ 4

This type of abuse also takes many forms in global sport. In a survey conducted last year with English Premier League and Football League footballers by sport anti-discrimination agency Kick It Out, 91% agreed that social media has led to an increase in them receiving discriminatory abuse and felt these platforms must be policed and monitored more. Channel 4 in the UK also reported that at least 40% of the 150 black Premiership players had been subjected to racist comment on Twitter over the last two years. That’s not a typo – at least 40%!

One of the real concerns is the effect this new form of abuse and harassment is having on our sports men and women’s’ welfare. NFL running back Rashard Mendenhall recently spoke about the level of hate he had experienced through social media and the damaging effect it had on his career and his personal life, when explaining why he walked away from the game at the age of 26. He said:

“There is a bold coarseness you receive from non-supporters that seems to only exist on the Internet. However, even if you try to avoid these things completely — because I’ve tried — somehow they still reach you. If not first-hand, then through friends and loved ones who take to heart all that they read and hear. I’m not a terribly sensitive person, so this stuff never really bothered me. That was until I realized that it actually had an impact my career. Over my career, I would learn that everything people say behind these computer and smartphones actually shape the perception of you — the brand, the athlete and the person.5

So what is the answer?

Hopes and expectations that discriminatory messages being broadcast across various social media platforms will be prevented or immediately removed remain just that – hopes and expectations. Many users bemoan a lack of timely action from these multi-billion dollar companies when it comes to dealing with abusive users.

The offender in the Ben Barba incident was a Country Rugby League player and has since been banned from participating in rugby league activities until he completes a cultural awareness program. Queensland and Australian duo Johnathan Thurston and Justin Hodges have joined forces, and upped the ante by calling for government and sporting authorities to stamp out racism, particularly via social media. Nic Naitanui later tweeted about his incident, saying:

‘education is the key my man! Would happily devote my time to help him see beyond colour #yougoinlearntoday.’

Susie Boniface, one of the UK’s most popular journalists on Twitter says: “Trolls are people who seek a reaction, and it justifies their reaction. The key is not to respond to these trolls. If it’s something minor then ignore it – if it’s really bad then report it to the police.” 6 This support is provided in the UK – football fans who abuse players or fellow supporters online have been warned they could face prosecution following guidance issued by lawyers and police after a series of high profile cases involving threats made on Twitter.

Public condemnation of the perpetrators, banning club memberships, ongoing education and possibly even legal avenues; the battle to protect our sportspeople against online abuse and discrimination continues . . .

Paul Oliver



1 http://www.sportlaw.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Social-Media-and-the-Games.pdf

2 See the number of facebook fans and Twitter followers of your favourite teams at: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/sport/afl/collingwood-brisbane-broncos-top-rankings-as-australias-most-popular-football-club/story-fni5f6hd-1226643288139

3 http://www.theroar.com.au/2014/03/05/punters-must-stop-using-social-media-to-abuse-jockeys/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social+media&utm_campaign=singe+top+share+bar

4 http://www.dailylife.com.au/health-and-fitness/dl-sport/ellyse-perry-meme-sparks-sexist-abuse-20140131-31q1t.html

5 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rashard-mendenhall/rashard-mendenhall-retirement-_b_4931316.html

6 http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/06/sport/sexism-in-sport-female-journalists-abuse/index.html?hpt=isp_c1

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