Blog article

Social media and sport: when sledging goes too far

With increased scrutiny on public figures, what happens when social media stops being a way for fans to engage with players and turns ugly?

In much the same way that social media has become an increasingly unavoidable part of life for the general public, so too is it part of the lives of professional athletes. With increased scrutiny on public figures, what happens when social media stops being a way for fans to engage with players and turns ugly?

Unfortunately, we saw one potential answer to that question play out in the public arena recently. When AFL player Tayla Harris was subject to sexist trolling from followers of the social media accounts on Channel 7, the channel decided to act. That act, unfortunately, only brought more controversy.

The decision to take down the post (even after it was later revived following the backlash) seemed to give in to the trolling instead of celebrating the athlete. Athletes came forward to defend her. The backlash against Channel 7 began. And yet, the actual perpetrators – those commenting on that post – remained unpunished.

That controversy brings up several issues that are worth deeper discussion.

Is the AFL doing enough to protect its players from online bullying?

The talk is certainly there. The AFL has plenty of publicly viewable online content, talking about its commitment to protecting players from online bullying. During the Tayla Harris controversy, it came out in support of Harris. But is that enough?

The resources are certainly available. In a recent interview, the AFL Players’ Association Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing, Brent Hedley, discussed the various initiatives underway to protect its athletes:

“The AFLPA’s Mental Health and Wellbeing team, which consists of in-house mental health specialists and project members, adopts a proactive approach in their delivery of specific wellbeing services. These services are supported by promotions, campaigns and educational initiatives which all aim to increase the awareness and understanding of mental health within both our membership and the broader community.”

Part of that initiative includes mental health and wellbeing workshops designed to help athletes cope with the implications of being a public figure and develop their non-football identities. While this is certainly a welcome and much-needed initiative, it remains to be seen how large a focus is placed on social media at this time, and whether responsible usage is adequately addressed.

The photo of Tayla Harris kicking the opening goal against Western Bulldogs in 2019.(Supplied: @Michaelcwillson And @Aflwomens)

How can clubs protect their players from increasing numbers of online bullies?

The AFL says that it’s doing all it can, but so long as trolls are able to post without consequence, are clubs really doing enough to dissuade online bullying?

According to women’s football pioneer Susan Alberti, now an advocate on the players’ behalf, anyone found to be engaging in trolling or inappropriate behaviour online should be banned from matches and stripped of club memberships. In the Harris incident, the AFL has refused to share whether the trolls will see any punishment in the form of a games or attendance ban. The clubs have taken a similar approach.

That opinion does not explain how social media anonymity might play into the equation. Greater moderation and attendance bans are impossible to enforce if the league or individual clubs don’t know who posted the actual message. The answer, then, may lay in the legal realm.

A recent story saw the condition of the ground become a potential cause for a lawsuit of a player against their club. That brings up a crucial question: can trolling and online bullying be classified as a failure to provide a safe workplace? If so, the responsibilities for clubs and the league increases dramatically. Efforts would have to be underway to not just help players cope with bullying but prevent that bullying in the first place.

The Problems and Consequences of Players Struggling Beyond Physical Well-Being

It’s easy to see the connection between a bad field and a physical injury. The line might not always be as clear for mental health struggles. These more internal, less tangible issues are nonetheless making a major impact in the world of sports.

Consider the potentially devastating effects of harmful views around masculinity. When you’re told to supress emotion in order to ‘be a man’ for decades, the connection to a mindset of not being good enough and depression is scarily tight.

Players are beginning to speak out about their struggles with mental health and the effect this can have on their performance. Recently, AFL star Travis Cloke opened up about his own battles, and the effect social media comments can have:

“I’d like to say no they don’t but they do hurt, they do probably give you a bit of a driving factor as well, to prove a point but realistically I shouldn’t have to prove a point to Joe Blow on a social media account but you do, you get drawn to it.”

Cloke also suffered from sledging from a fellow player after he first started speaking out about his mental health. It’s just one example of social media merging with real life to become a major worry in the mindset of athletes today.

The Flip Side: Players Behaving Poorly on Social Media

The sledging of Travis Cloke also hints at another inconvenient truth: players themselves can behave inappropriately on social media. Take as an example Israel Folau, who faces termination from the league over homophobic and offensive posts.

For players, like fans, social media and the platform it provides offers a dangerous opportunity. It’s easy to log on and express yourself, even if that expression ultimately hurts others. Athletes tend to be held more accountable in the public eye; even agreeing with Folau earned one rugby star a reprimand from his club. The general problem, though, remains the same.

Don’t think of social media as a one-sided danger in which athletes are the victims. They are people, and just like others, can be drawn to the dangers of the medium. That’s important to keep in mind for any organisation or association looking to improve the online community these athletes frequent and feature on.

How Brolly can help account for undeniable impact of social media on sports clubs and aathletes

There is no clear answer on how to solve the issue of responsible social media usage. The AFL’s training on social media consciousness is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but far from enough. Meanwhile, social media is having a direct impact on players and clubs alike. What will the future hold?

Ultimately, independently verifiable documentation will be crucial to help all parties protect themselves. It might be hacked social media accountsstalkersmade-up quotes attributed to players, or just a deleted comment from a fan who claims innocence when confronted. The likelihood of legal action for these cases will only increase in the near future. Are you prepared for that trend?

Accurate record-keeping is not the solve-all, but it does provide a crucial advantage to clubs and organisations as well as the players themselves. At the very least, it clears up confusion over what happened, and provides the most accurate possible picture.

That’s where Brolly can help. Our solution allows you to keep records of all social media interactions, from posts to individual comments of followers.

Talk to us today about making social media just a little safer for athletes, clubs, and all stakeholders in this equation.