Women’s sport has enjoyed significant growth in recent years, with the sector forecast to be worth over UK£1 billion in 2024. Alongside this growth, women in sport are becoming increasingly high profile and women footballers have been elevated to the status of sporting celebrities.
Yet there is a darker side to this adoration where these heroes can also be victims of online gender-based violence. We argue that the entire sports industry – from local grassroot sport clubs through to the largest media corporations – have a moral obligation to do more to ensure that all athletes and in particular women athletes are safe from abuse in online spaces.
The evolved nature of sport
In the latter parts of the 20th century, sport became increasingly professionalised and commercialised. While this process typically happened later in women’s sport, we now see increased investment in women’s sport and greater coverage and, with this, increased (mediated) visibility.
Women’s sport is undeniably popular with large audiences on television for mega events such as the Fifa Women’s World Cup. It has also been the site of another process: that of mediatisation. This has involved a shift towards digital consumption of sport and an increased reliance on social media.
Given that media organisations have historically prioritised men’s sport and frequently ignored or even shunned women’s sport, women athletes and women’s sport in general have turned to social media marketing to allow them to reach their audiences.
The marketing strategies adopted are often innovative, such as the use of TikTok to build and grow new Generation Z audiences. These platforms have enabled traditional media gatekeepers, who are typically male, to be bypassed. It is a strategic approach of sports clubs, governing bodies, and even media companies to profile women athletes in marketing or publicity campaigns, including on social media to capture new and expanding markets.
Similarly, there is a growing number of women sports administrators, women sports journalists, and media professionals who are highly visible and make use of these platforms as an everyday part of their jobs. Online environments have the potential to be spaces therefore to challenge the status quo and give an ever-increasing presence to high profile women.
It is now recognised that increased exposure to online environments elevates the risk of experiencing or witnessing harm within them. Importantly, while anyone using social media platforms has the potential to experience abuse, women and girls continue to be the main targets for online abuse. When considering this issue, we advocate for it being recognised as a form of gender-based violence towards women and girls so that its significance is not lost.
It has been shown that social media can often be an unregulated space that allows gender-based violence targeting high-profile women in their workplace in a way that traditional sport media does not. More so, the continued presence of online spaces that allow the presence of vitriolic language creates a greater danger as it suggests a broader tolerance for extreme views and hate speech.
Research into the relationship between social media and the vulnerability of female sports professionals has shown that the use of hashtags, free-form comments, social tagging, and other post interactions such as likes have created greater visibility of antiwomen narratives and general contempt for women.
A recent study found that women footballers were exposed to vitriol surrounding their job role and performance on a regular basis. In many instances, the violence that takes place online is low level and can be classed as background misogyny, yet there remains a slow burn to this type of abuse that can result in wide reaching harm.
Abuse can also be more extreme and criminal in nature. Such violence may marginalise, sexualise, or demean athletes but it can also explicitly threaten their physical safety and/or threaten the safety of those closest to them, radiating beyond the target.
Many studies have now shown that this form of violence is not just an issue in a particular sport or geographical region but instead is globally cross cutting, given the reach of online spaces and lack of geographic margins online. Regardless of where it originates, it has a significant impact on the victims.
As we have highlighted before, this online violence can have long-lasting and far-reaching effects that are often experienced in all aspects of victims’ lives and not just their athletic performance. Victims often detail the significant negative effects on their mental health and wellbeing. Some quit social media to escape the violence or even go as far as stepping away from their sport (either temporarily or permanently). Others warn that it may lead to athletes taking their own lives. It is online violence yet it results in embodied harm to recipients.
A sporting problem?
While the presence of online abuse is a global and societal issue, when this violence occurs in response to content produced by sports clubs or sports organisations and athletes themselves, it is an issue that sports cannot ignore.
Recent research shows that often there is no response from the accounts that share content and no action toward removing or managing abusive comments, suggesting that these accounts are not being monitored on a regular basis for such content.
This situation allows such exchanges to become part of the discourse of online environments that is then considered to be ‘acceptable’ on these accounts. At its most extreme, the sexism, misogyny, and sexualised language that forms gender-based violence persists and can become associated with the clubs.
Without the development of industry standards and clear responses from the clubs or organisations to protect their employees – women athletes and others working in sport – they will continue to be seen as acceptable targets and online gender-based violence will continue.
When content is posted by sports brands, or when women athletes are encouraged to engage with social media platforms, meaningful action must be taken when violent posts are identified. As a minimum, these posts should be deleted to ensure that their continued presence is not seen as tacit acceptance of the content.
However, we call for greater protection for women athletes. It is the moral obligation of the industry to step up and develop an approach that excludes gender-based violence in online sporting environments. It is time to make all aspects of sport safe.
About the authors:
Dr Emma Kavanagh is an associate professor in sport psychology and safe sport at Bournemouth University. She is a researcher in safeguarding and abuse in sport with a focus on both online and face to face environments and a member of the Sport & Physical Activity Research Centre (SPARC).
Dr Keith Parry is the head of department in the Department of Sport and Event Management at Bournemouth University and a member of the Sport & Physical Activity Research Centre (SPARC). His research interests are primarily focused on identity, sport and in/exclusion and how both traditional and newer, online media formats are used to present and discuss these subjects.