Trolls are just the start of the problems facing female players

Tayla Harris is by no means the first woman in sport to be trolled by misogynists on social media — and she's unlikely to be the last.

One can only hope, however, that the public outrage at the gross comments on Michael Willson's stunning photo could be a turning point on this issue.

But 7AFL's original decision to remove the photo, rather than moderate the trolls commenting on the thread, indicates that there's a long way to go.

The photo wasn't the problem

As Matildas star Sam Kerr posted, the problem was never the photo of Harris, but the fact that an image of a strong, powerful woman kicking goals on the field should inspire sexist and transphobic hate speech.

External Link: Sam Kerr tweets

Here's another example. Just four days before, the AFL Women's Facebook account posted a photo announcing the retirement of Olympic silver-medallist and celebrated multi-sport athlete Cecilia McIntosh of Collingwood.

The abuse that followed in the comment thread underneath was — sadly — neither surprising nor remarkable.

For many, however, the comments of one man stood out.

"Well done Cecilia, what a journeywoman, your longevity through the gruelling 8 match seasons over 3 years has taken its toll. Truly inspirational [two hand-clapping emojis]," it read.

The man behind the sarcastic comment is a former AFL player, one who made only half a dozen appearances in the top tier in his career. His comment was liked, loved or laughed at by at least 445 people before it was deleted.

External Link: Cecelia McIntosh

Comments designed to intimidate

Just what possesses men to post derogatory comments? The answer is usually simple: misogyny.

When men feel entitled to the power and privilege associated with the patriarchal world of sport, there is a perception that this kind of behaviour is both normal and without retribution.

That's because, until very recently, bad behaviour by men — including abhorrent instances of violence against women — has been justified, excused or ignored.

But the work is not done. Some of our national sporting organisations, and those in positions of power within them, are taking a while to catch on to the link between sport and a culture of gender inequality that sets the conditions for violence against women to occur.

Tayla Harris says trolls' comments on AFLW photo were 'sexual abuse'

Abuse crosses codes

This is not just a problem for the AFL, or for Channel 7 either. Trolling of incredible women athletes playing other sports remains rampant.

Just ask Liz Cambage, runner-up in the WNBA MVP for 2018 who broke the single-game WNBA scoring record with 53 points against New York Liberty in July last year.

So relentless is the negativity directed at Cambage online that she talked at length about it at a recent International Women's Day forum — with her response so inspiring it was promptly turned into a meme.

External Link: Liz Cambage

But while we can commend athletes like Cambage for staying fierce in the face of abuse, there is also a responsibility on behalf of the organisations that run these competitions to support their players in what is ultimately a welfare issue.

Sticking with the WNBA, the Minnesota Lynx provide one impressive example. Shahbaz Khan, senior manager for digital content at the Lynx and Minnesota Timberwolves decided in 2018 that she was sick of misogyny directed at players online, and took it upon herself to change the discourse.

She put head coach Cheryl Reeve in front of cameras to address sexist commenters, while the social media team also responded to messages directly in what Khan has called an effort to "educate and acknowledge the massive ignorance and misunderstandings around the WNBA".

Back home, the NRL did a similarly creative job of shutting down trolling in its response to homophobic comments below a photo it posted of a kiss between Vanessa Foliaki and Karina Brown after the 2018 women's State of Origin clash.

External Link: Vanessa Foliaki kisses her partner Karina Brown External Link: NRL's response to homophobic comments

Leadership is required

For the welfare of those playing women's sport, it is incumbent upon national sporting bodies like the AFL — and media like Channel 7 — to take a similar stance.

It is also the responsibility of organisations like the AFL Players Association (which represents both AFL and AFLW players) to make clear that sexism is unacceptable within the AFL community broadly — including the AFL men's community.

There is enormous power and privilege associated with men's sport, and it is time that power was used to support those who are much more marginalised, paid precariously and subject to abuse simply for making headway into a deeply patriarchal culture.

Kate O'Halloran is a sportswriter and former Victorian cricketer. She hosts AFLW radio show Kick Like a Girl 12-1pm Mondays on RRR and writes a column on the AFLW for the ABC.

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