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How Irish sport is trying to tackle social media abuse

Dealing with unwelcome notifications on your phone apps is now a part of being an athlete.

EACH YEAR SINCE 2018, Rugby Player’s Ireland have held a ‘rookie camp’ for young players who find themselves on the cusp of stepping into the world of professional rugby.

The camps are heavily leaned towards matters off the pitch, such as financial planning, leadership and how to engage with the media. The fact that they also provide education around experiencing social media abuse is a sad reminder that a relatively new issue in sport is now an unavoidable factor of life in the spotlight.

“It’s become part and parcel of what players have to deal with,” explains Deirdre Lyons, who leads the Player Development Programme at Rugby Players Ireland [RPI].

“With some players it’s absolutely water off a duck’s back, and other players will take it to heart. 

“One of our big roles would be to try and educate players in really trying to control what they can control, and not what others write about them, but that’s much easier said than done.” 

For the purpose of this piece The42 did not discuss any specific cases with the various contributors, but a flick through the sporting year of 2021 threw up plenty of examples which highlight that this is a prominent issue for our sportspeople.

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You can start with the online backlash which followed Billy Burns’ series of errors during Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to Wales back in February. Munster lock Jean Kleyn and Ireland flanker Anna Caplice were just two of the many players who spoke honestly about the issue of social media abuse at different stages of the season. Move down from the elite level, and you have the instance of players at Railway Union feeling the need to step away from social media following a 142-0 win over Wicklow in the Women’s All-Ireland League. 

The GAA year saw former Wexford hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald highlight abuse aimed at both him and his family. The Mayo County board hit out at “personal attacks” on the county’s footballers and management team following their All-Ireland final defeat to Tyrone. 

Ireland international James McClean provided a few windows into his inbox, where death threats are no longer shocking to the 32-year-old father of three. Former Ireland striker David McGoldrick described social media as “a bad, bad place” after revealing some the racist abuse he received. 

It stretches beyond mainstream, high profile sporting events, too. The Ireland women’s U20 basketball team found themselves on the receiving end of “abusive and disgraceful comments” after losing two group matches at the European Challenger series.

The list goes on. Social media abuse has become an unfortunate, constant presence in Irish sport, to the extent that combating it is now a central part of the work being done across various sporting organisations across the country.

Laois footballer Colm Begley is Player Welfare Manager at the Gaelic Players’ Association [GPA], who recently took part in a study with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Sport and Media to examine the levels and impact of abuse within the GAA.

“Surprisingly for us, we had about 725 players take part in it, male and female, and 94% of players said they had never actually suffered abuse via social media,” Begley says.

We thought it would be higher from the dealings we’ve had with some players in both codes. But what we did find is that even though there are low enough numbers, the impact it is having on high profile players is pretty real and pretty serious.”

Mark Smyth is a psychologist who has worked with athletes across a variety of sports, and is clinical lead for RPI’s mental wellbeing service.

“What a lot of athletes have done is just really, really limit their exposure on social media in general because of the uncertainty of how challenging it is going to be,” Smyth says.

“In many ways you couldn’t blame them, because there are very, very few careers where your work performance is critiqued in real time. If you work in maybe business or finance, you might get a little bit anxious ahead of your performance review with your boss, whereas for an athlete it’s about moment by moment being critiqued in real time. That’s exceptionally difficult.”

The nature of abuse varies from direct criticism, to messaging family members directly and even catfishing. The view of those working in this area on the ground is that people tend to only see the athlete they watch on the pitch, and fail to think about the human being behind the famous name.

“It’s like people see them on the TV so there is somehow a disconnect, like they are actors or something,” Lyons says.

“Not many people walk up to a 6’5″ rugby player and say to their face what they write on social media. Players are people first and foremost, so would you say this about your brother or cousin, or would you say it to the player’s face?

“And we’ve had this in some cases, family members (being targeted). I think that can be really upsetting, when people might troll a sister or brother or parent saying ‘your son is crap’ or ‘your daughter is crap.’

“I have had players mention it to me in the past, and that’s probably the (most) upsetting angle for them. They maybe feel they can deal with it, but trolling girlfriends or partners, especially if they have big social media accounts (is difficult).”

It also affects different athletes in different ways, and one of the big challenges is identifying who might need some support. This is particaulry challenging in the GAA world, where high profile players are removed from the sporting bubble during the week as they step back in the real world via work or college.

“It’s hard to measure how a player reacts to something compared to other players,” Belgey adds. “But the real serious one is the attack on a player’s character. The performance one will always be there, whether it’s right or wrong, but to attack the character or to get really personal, that’s when it can have a real impact on players, because they do have lives outside of their football or hurling or camogie. 

“If a decision has been made around a clash or a hit that has subjected a player to ridicule on social media, then after that action has happened on the field, the reputation or character of a player gets brought into question as well. There are players who are living their life after the game is over, in their career or their job, who are being put through abusive comments online. 

There is also a cultural mindset too from the GAA circles about recognising that players are human beings, they are not professionals. What we’ve noticed is most players will be able to handle it quite well, but there are some situations where it can get very, very heavy and very personal, attacking the person rather than the player, and we find players can sometimes have difficulty dealing with that, which is only human really.” 

“Self-doubt is probably the biggest piece, worrying about being good enough,” Smyth adds.

“What can happen for an athlete is, it can generalise beyond the sports environment. So if you are facing a barrage of criticism, particularly via social media, it’s very hard for an athlete to separate the sportsperson from the human. It’s not that you can have a shield of armour that protects you – ‘This is just criticising me as a sportsperson’… (They think) ‘this is criticising me as a person.’

“This is not just someone you see on a TV. We’re seeing people make a comment on Twitter, and they think ‘Well that was just me making a comment on a player’s performance’, but because you could have 5-10,000 people randomly commenting on that same player at the same time, the accumulative effect of all of that, how could that not affect an individual?

“When it goes to the realm of abuse, these players and the coaches and the management, they all have families, and those families are on social media and are reading negative, harsh or abusive comments about their brothers, their sisters, their dads and their mums. So it’s not just about an individual or a team, it has much wider implications.”

There are no major trends in terms of when and why abuse is directed at a sportsperson. Everyone and anyone can become a target.

“It’s probably open season really,” Lyons continues.

“It tends nearly to be whatever is in the mainstream media at the time. If it’s the women’s (rugby) team or the Six Nations or the U20s or the Sevens, it tends to follow the patterns of the competitions that are on at that time.

“We did a ‘Be Kind’ campaign during the Six Nations and some of the stuff they were saying about the men’s senior team, the women’s team, about overseas players playing for Ireland… I mean, it just seems to be open season for trolls.”

“We’ve definitely found that players at the higher level with strong social media followings are an easier target,” Begley says.

“They have had some emotional and psychological damage, or repetitional damage. And it’s not only intercounty, it’s coming from clubs too and I think there needs to be work from all angles, including players, officials and referees.”

The various organisations all have different ways of monitoring social media abuse and supporting players. Clubs will advise players when to post on social media before and after games, and provide education around how a player presents themself on their own social media accounts.

RPI will preemptively check in with players who are coming in for criticism online and discuss things like screen time, what apps they use and how often they use them.

The GPA also monitor what is being said on social media and provide access to professional counseling services, as well as adding four new welfare engagement officers to their staff over the past year and offering a new player development pathway programme, BEO360. Players also have access to text services if they don’t feel comfortable reaching out in person. 

In all instances, the key message is encouraging players to talk and seek help if they need it.

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“From what we’ve seen, I think players are probably coming forward a lot easier to some of our counselling supports,” Begley says.

But a lot of players find themselves in a position (where they feel) able to handle it, that they might be strong or resilient enough, so it’s often not the players coming to us, it’s more so us going to the player to make sure things are ok.”

“Certainly in the past, I think a lot of athletes would keep their self-doubt, anxieties or worries to themselves because there was a perception that they needed to be above all of these things, and that you couldn’t admit weakness,” Smyth says.

“But I think in general with the (rugby) players on an individual level, they are much much more open now about recognising nice and early when things like self-doubt and anxiety are impacting on them, and a lot of that would come from the criticisms and negativity that would be out there.

“So in the same way that if they were to notice a niggle with their hamstring they would try go to the physio, I think a lot of athletes now are noticing that when they are getting mental niggles, they can come and intervene nice and early to find ways to manage those.”

Players are generally encouraged to report any abuse directed their way, but the response from social media companies is often unsatisfactory.

There is some hope the situation can improve. The Government are currently considering a new Online Safety Bill, expected to be released in the coming weeks.

While any measures to monitor and fight the issue of social media abuse are welcome, there are concerns the bill won’t go far enough, with the uncertainty surrounding the inclusion of an individual complaints mechanism – which would act as a separate avenue to pursue any complaints not dealt with by social media companies – a particular sticky point. 

“There has been a lot of pushback from the social media companies who want to be able to self-regulate,” Smyth continues.

“We’ve experienced self-regulation on social media and it’s been an epic failure, it doesn’t work. 

We have a really good opportunity with this new Online Safety Bill to build in protective mechanisms so that we can empower players and athletes that if you are targeted and abused online, you can make a complaint, outside of the structures of the social media companies, which might get addressed. 

“You go on Twitter any day and you can see people who made a report for an abusive tweet and they get no response, so we need to have a mechanism there to protect people by providing for an individual complaints mechanism.

“Then maybe we might get more interaction, players might feel safer on social media if those structural supports were in place. But we are still waiting on Government to see if they are going to include it. I think if they don’t, it will be a huge missed opportunity to deal with online abuse.”

Regardless of what happens with the bill, dealing with social media abuse will likely remain part of the life of the modern sportsperson.

“It’s always something we are going to have to work with players on, whether they want to or not,” Lyons says.

“This is just part and parcel of being a professional player so it’s learning to control the ups and downs of it.”

“It’s something that won’t go away,” Begley adds, “and there is not one quick fix, but our priority is to try and help build players’ resilience and give them a stronger sense of being able to handle this, because they won’t be able to stop it fully.

“People who are in high profile positions are going to come in for negative comments. That’s part of being an athlete in all sports, but maybe we can train our players to be better at handling it and avoiding it if possible, then if there are situations where they can’t handle it themselves, they know there are supports they can come to.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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