Sexism and online abuse are alive and well in rugby union
Last week, football pundit and ex-England star player Karen Carney faced a sea of abuse on social media for a comment she made about Leeds United. Carney suggested that Leeds may not have been able to sustain the level they were playing at throughout last season, and the break coronavirus granted the players may have helped them with their promotion. Leeds United’s official social media account then Tweeted the video clip of Carney’s comments and tagged her employer, Prime Video. The abuse was so nasty that Carney deactivated her Twitter account.
Let’s treat men and women pundits the same, and let’s challenge them when we think an opinion is unfounded or missing context. But whether you agreed with Carney or not, the abuse she faced afterwards was wholly disproportionate with what she said. Some Leeds fans reacted with such fury; you would think she had called for Leeds’ home matches to be cancelled so the stadium could be used to make a giant Lasagne to feed the masses during the upcoming lockdown. For what it’s worth, I didn’t agree with Carney, but she knows a lot more about football than me, so I kept my mouth shut. But Leeds United knew exactly what they were doing. Women in sport are much more likely to receive online abuse than men. To share a clip of what she said invites people who didn’t watch the entire chat to abuse her directly on social media.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that women in sport face tougher criticism than men. There’s the long-standing joke that if a man says he’s interested in sport, it’s an accepted fact. Women will not be accepted until they can explain the offside rule and recite the middle names of Bristol Bear’s bench. Only recently, an Everton fan said to me “I see you’re a sports journalist, tell me how Everton are doing right now”. I’ve been put on the spot at matches, at social events, and at work. To be a woman who talks about sport, you have to be on-guard all the time.
This is not to say that men do not receive abuse in rugby, or that women are the worst-affected group. There’s a general problem in rugby that we don’t welcome ‘outsiders’, a lot of which is based on our supposed moral superiority over football. How many times have you seen posts that say things like ‘football is 90 minutes of pretending you’re hurt, rugby is 80 minutes of pretending you’re not’, or the GIF of Nigel Owens’ “this isn’t soccer” line. Rugby holds itself in such high esteem, with fans often saying there’s respect in rugby unlike football. But watch what happens when someone asks a rugby question on social media – you often get a pile on of people calling the question stupid. I shared a Tweet about this recently, where someone had asked an innocent question about away kits in rugby, to be told to “stick to soccer”.
I’ve spoken to Black fans and players who face abuse regularly too – Dragons’ player Ashton Hewitt shared one example of the racist abuse he received on Twitter last week. Beno Obano and Maro Itoje recently starred in Everybody’s Game, an Amazon Prime documentary which gives insight into life as a BAME rugby union player. Rugby is not immune from these issues that we like to say are football’s problem.
Women’s rugby players and spokespeople are not safe from this abuse either. Two women’s rugby players I spoke to said they had experienced online abuse but didn’t want to talk about it in case it led to more abuse on social media. Florence Williams, player for Wasps Ladies, often speaks out about injustices in women’s rugby, and has experienced social media abuse first-hand.
“When talking against trolls and sexism in rugby, I have found that people see your gender before they see your opinion. You are already fighting a losing battle because people are waiting for you to trip up so they can jump on your errors rather than listen to your opinion.
“Often, I am criticized for being a female or supporting women, rather than my facts being wrong, yet males are judged on their content. I think it is important to call out and take a stand against online abuse because how will we ever change society if we ignore the problem? We need to highlight the problem to encourage change, even if it does make for uncomfortable situations in the meantime. I would rather go through that pain now so that fewer people have to experience it in the future.
“Unfortunately, social media gives users a ‘mask’ to hide behind, but it also allows you to see that some of these prehistoric opinions are still common. This means we can address them and use it as evidence as to why we need more female role models or why we need more female sport coverage, because there is still societal misogyny that needs to be addressed.
“Rugby is a heavily male dominated sport due to the physicality. This leads to frequent trolling of female players with comments such as ‘do they even play full contact?’ or ‘play against the men and see how good you are’. This highlights the fact that women’s rugby needs better coverage so that comments like this become redundant. I am continuously baffled why some people still feel they have the right to put down professional athletes who are global leaders in their sport just because they are women, and that doesn’t fit societal expectations or norms.”
Williams is not alone; a BBC study found that 30 per cent of British sportswomen say they have been trolled online. In August, Wales player Elinor Snowsill told BBC Sport about her experiences of trolling on social media: “It’s just a bit relentless. It sometimes feels a bit like harassment. It’s such a strong word but if that person was constantly coming up and reacting to everything you did in real life, it would feel a bit odd.
'Since writing last week’s column, I’ve heard distressing anecdotes… women sacked for being refused time off with concussion & even a woman who was turned away from A&E with a packet of paracetamol who later collapsed'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 21, 2020
“It’s emoji reactions with heart eyes or blowing kisses. Or ‘very nice’, ‘looking good’. Other ones are completely random like telling me something about themselves. If it carries on, most of the time I block them.
“About four years ago, I had one who commented on something that made me think he was near and knew where I was. I had posted and I was in a public place. That did scare me a bit. I blocked him and was quite careful with what I put up.
“It’s never women who do it. It feels more threatening because if there ever was a situation where someone took it to the extreme, generally men have more power in a situation than women because they’re stronger. It just has that different edge to it.
“What kind of mindset are they in that they would constantly do something without ever getting a response?
“It just makes you question where their limit is. You don’t know them and they often don’t have pictures of their faces in their profiles. You can’t actually find out anything about them. That’s what makes it more threatening.”
The disrespect for women’s rugby players online, often born from an ignorance about the sport, makes it harder for players to be honest about their experiences. In 2019, I wrote a piece for The Times about the sacrifices women make to play in the Women’s Six Nations. I explained how one player, Wales’ Jess Kavanagh, had to drive from North to South Wales at least twice a week (an eight-hour round trip) to train for Wales – as well as working full time. She’s not paid a penny to play for Wales and her commitment and dedication was inspiring. Yet, one comment read: “Maybe if the product made money instead of being parasitic victimhood whingers ‘waa waa I sleep in the car, waa waa nobody pays me’ ffs.” The irony being, of course, that if this commenter had to sleep in his car once, you can guarantee he would cry about it.
I remember reading horrid social media comments after England beat Wales in the 2020 Women’s Six Nations. One man said it was “embarrassing” for Wales to lose 38-7 to England. I highly doubt he realised that the Wales team is amateur, with players working full-time around their rugby commitments, or that they were playing against a fully-professional England side.
Just today, The Telegraph published a list of the top ten women’s rugby players in Britain, and every comment is abusive. One comment reads: “butch, all of them”. Another says: “less interest than tiddly-winks and we get a pseudo hero-worshiping article. Grow up, DT.”
Comments online are not victimless, and they affect all groups in rugby. It’s not as simple as just leaving it behind in 2020. If I see an abusive comment online, I instantly block them, and I don’t engage with them at all. If everyone did this, the trolls would soon be silenced. They crave attention, and the best way to stop them is to starve them of what they want.
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