October 2019

Image of women on playing field

The internet has been a marvelous resource for sporting codes, clubs and fans. For fans, it means we can stream the action, wherever we are, through our devices, and receive constant updates and behind-the-scenes info on Facebook and other platforms. Meanwhile, clubs can use these same platforms to connect with fans and expand their supporter base.

Unfortunately, in professional sport the internet hasn’t been quite such a boon for those who make all this possible — the players themselves.

At eSafety we deal every day with the harm caused by cyberbullying and other online abuse. In recent years, a number of Australian professional athletes have been targeted by precisely this type of abuse.

Two recent, highly publicised cases involve the AFLW player Tayla Harris and Indigenous Sydney Roosters player Latrell Mitchell. Both have been subjected to vicious online abuse, otherwise known as trolling.

That Mitchell and Harris find themselves in the crosshairs of cyber abuse is not accidental. At eSafety we’ve learned that intersectional factors play a significant role in drawing abuse and trolling on the internet. In other words, a person’s age, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation may make them more susceptible to online risk and harm.

But a young professional athlete doesn’t need to have any special vulnerabilities to become the victim of vicious trolling: they simply need to have a bad game.

Luckily, high-profile athletes who experience cyber abuse can generally rely on support from the organisations they play for. When these crises occur, the social media professionals inside these organisations should be thinking about how to get in and defend their player online, to drown out the negativity and call out the abusive behaviour through positive counter-messages.

At eSafety, we can help with solid, research-based advice on countering online abuse, along with more specific advice for women.

Weekend warriors

But then there is that other vast area of sport — the kind that happens all around Australia every weekend of the year. I am talking about community, junior, amateur and school sport. These weekend warriors do not have teams of professionals to help them navigate the rapids of social media abuse. As with so much else, they have to make do for themselves.

I see this with my own eyes, because I’ve gone from being an avid soccer player, at school and university, to being a keen soccer mum. Sometimes, standing on the sideline, I find I need to censor myself, in case I say something too critical, or too gushing, or just too over-the-top, and risk embarrassing my kids in the process.

It’s hard to self-censor as an adult, and even harder as a child. As I often say, "The best filters are the one's between our ears," but we know this temperance can be difficult in the heat of a sporting moment.  Yet, this is exactly the kind of filtering process that is so important, on the sideline — but also online, if we want to ensure the internet works for diversity and inclusion in sport at the grassroots level.

We’ve all read the stories about the inappropriate behaviour parents and coaches are capable of on the sidelines of junior and amateur sports. This behaviour all too easily migrates online. So does abuse of a player by other members of the team.

We’ve seen plenty of examples at eSafety.

The first line of defence against this type of behaviour is we — parents, coaches and administrators who give up so much of their time to community sport, junior sport, amateur sport, sport in schools and tertiary institutions. If we model the right kinds of behaviour, our children and young people are much more likely to recognise the boundary line between barracking, heckling and abusing.

Just as you model so many positive behaviours for young players, on and off the field, you have the opportunity to do the same for their behaviour online.

Don’t panic

I understand that the parents, carers, volunteers and administrators who manage community sport are already expected to be experts in budget management, occupational health and safety, communications, sausage catering and other areas. I’m not suggesting for a moment you also need to become experts on Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram.

Creating an online safety culture in a sporting club is largely common sense and involves instilling and modelling the same behaviours online as offline: civility, respect and inclusiveness.

More specifically, we recommend four key actions that sporting leaders can undertake to help ensure your club or team operates a healthy, safe and empowering online environment:

  • Establish online boundaries that make it clear to everyone how and where online communication will occur, and use those same channels to model the online behaviour you expect from all those involved in your club;
  • Highlight reporting processes, so that every participant knows what to do and where to go if they feel targeted on any club channels;
  • Set a positive social media agenda with the team, with clear ground rules that cover privacy issues, how you would like your club to be seen by outsiders, and how you will deal online with winning and losing;

And finally, develop a robust policy on the use of photos or videos, which makes it clear participants will be consulted before any use of their image online, and stipulates:

  • How photos and videos may be used for coaching purposes;
  • Where cameras and other recording devices are allowed, or not allowed; and
  • What kinds of images are not appropriate, because they have the potential to cause harm.

If all of this sounds daunting, let me assure you it doesn’t need to be. You will find plenty of material specific to your needs on our new national online safety hub. We even have a checklist designed to help sporting clubs audit their online safety.

The internet does have a lot to contribute to sport. In particular, a safe, welcoming internet culture can help both professional and community organisations ensure that this wonderful activity — sport — is available and inclusive for everyone.


This article provides an excerpt of remarks Julie delivered at the Play by the Rules “Diversity and Inclusion in Sport” forum held in Sydney on 17 October 2019


Julie Inman Grant

Julie Inman Grant

eSafety Commissioner