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Why our attitudes toward athletes on social media needs to change

Image of Instagram like counter with zero likes
Credit: Prateek Katyal (Unsplash)

Opinion / by Ivi Fung

Thanks to the omnipresence of social media in modern life, it has never been easier to interact with the sports stars we admire most. But rather than being a source of encouragement for athletes, social media is often plagued with negativity and trolling that can cause everlasting – and sometimes irreversible – damage.

In 2012, remarking on ‘reasons to be cheerful’ for the London Olympics, Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph: "As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball… They are glistening like wet otters."

Imagine you were one of those volleyball players. You put all your time and effort into training and are determined to win a medal for your country. Yet, it was your body that was highlighted in the media. How would you feel about it?

Johnson’s comments are one of quite literally hundreds-of-thousands, if not millions, of examples of unconstructive, unhelpful, and unhealthy feedback levied toward professional athletes in our media. In his specific case, it is an example of hyper-sexualisation and public shaming of female athletes (both long-persistent issues in our media) – but it is just one of many forms of hostility athletes experience every day.

Perhaps the most pertinent of channels for this to occur through is social media which, now a substantial part of the sports landscape, gives fans the previously unprecedented ability to interact with athletes in whatever way they please. An ability a growing number of people unfortunately choose to abuse. To provide one recent example, Manchester United football club revealed a 350% increase in offensive messages directed toward club players over the past three years.

Manchester United's All Red All Equal campaign is the club's initiative to combat discrimination targeted at football players and fans.

Visual content and body image issues

Instagram users can be some of the worst offenders. For users with attitudes like Johnson’s, the visual focus of Instagram provides them with the ability to critique an athlete’s body in line with society’s higher, often idealised version of body image. This is particularly true for (as Johnson demonstrated) female athletes who are often required to wear more revealing outfits than their male counterparts to participate in a particular sport. A BBC survey revealed that one-third of female athletes have their bodies commented on in derogatory and demeaning ways.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to an increase in body consciousness issues among female athletes: the same BBC poll shows that 78% of female athletes are conscious of the way they look. This in turn fuels a rise in other mental health concerns, with sports psychology research showing that an athlete’s insecurity about their body – also known as ‘social physique anxiety’ – can lead to an increase in symptoms of anxiety and worry. Social media only adds fuel to this fire, with data suggesting that social media is the biggest stressor for around 80% of elite female athletes.

New Zealand Sevens player Niall Williams is one of many female athletes to experience this. She faced body-shaming on Instagram in 2020 for her “masculinity” and supposed showcasing of “male hormones” while playing rugby. She has since posted on Instagram about the extensive work she has put in to strengthen her mental wellbeing to handle such criticisms.


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It’s not just female athletes dealing with the consequences of online trolling. Last month, Korean male professional volleyball player Kim In-hyeok took his own life after being bullied on social media for years. Online trolls mocked his feminine appearance and sexual identity.

Several times prior to taking his own life, Kim clearly highlighted the mental distress he was going through due to the hateful comments and direct messages made about him. In August last year, he posted on Instagram, "Please stop those tormenting comments, I cannot bear it anymore."

Korean volleyball player Kim In-hyeok tragically took his own life after years of online trolling mocking his 'feminine' appearance.

Body image is only part of the problem though. Social media trolls also often take the opportunity to attack athletes when their performance does not match expectations. On the occasions when their performances are disappointing, athletes often receive online assaults that target their personal life, overall sports career, and their families.

One example occurred during the NBA playoffs in 2012 in which Los Angeles Lakers player Steve Blake missed a decisive shot. Shortly after, social media trolls targeted the Twitter account of his wife Kristen. Death-threat comments like “I hope your family gets murdered” were common.

When sport and national pride intertwine

Sometimes the trolling is based in something far more sinister than simple harsh critique: nationalism. When any form of national sporting event is occurring, tying in national pride and identity with an individual or team of athletes, hostility often becomes intensified.

It’s not unusual in these instances to see online trolls expressing hatred towards members of opposing teams from other countries, or indeed seeing social media accounts of national team athletes being flooded with demeaning messages and instances of public shaming sent by their fellow compatriots after they lose.

The current 2022 Winter Olympics has already offered up one example of such behaviour in the case of USA-born Chinese figure skater Zhu Yi. On Weibo, China’s leading social media platform, Zhu has been viciously critiqued after finishing last in the women’s team event, with tens-of-thousands of users targeting her personal character and upbringing, and some even branding her a “national disgrace.” Zhu became emotional following her individual event, explaining to reporters that her main task was “coping mentally.”

It’s time to reflect on how we interact with athletes on social media

While sports stars receive enormous support and spotlight through social media platforms, many athletes are drowned by the negativity and hatred directed at them online. Among the latter, some choose to remove themselves from social media entirely and deactivate their accounts. More tragically, some professional athletes are even pushed to take their own lives.

Individual online users probably do not think about the consequences of a hostile message sent to athletes. Perhaps this is due to the very common, albeit illogical, expectation many of us have that athletes should have a tough mentality at all times, both during and after they entertain, amaze, and win for us. In turn, this may be why social media users can be particularly unforgiving and turn the opportunity of personally connecting with sports stars into an opportunity to expose them to anxiety, pressure, or even life-threatening depression.

Whatever the reason, it is up to us, the audience, the admirers, the supporters, and fans, to choose the feelings we want to channel to the athletes we admire. After all, does anyone really want their actions on social media to be an athlete’s reason to quit their sports, or even quit their lives?


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