Tennis’ Online Abuse Problem
Could sports betting, sales tactics and the seeming access of social media actual cause the mental anguish behind their screens?
Lebanese-German tennis player, Benjamin Hassan, 25, regularly gets called a “terrorist” on tour. The ATP №420-ranked player no longer checks his phone after matches.
“F**king Muslim terrorist; I’m gonna kill you; f**k you, you die of cancer; I hope you die in an accident.” These are the sentiments that come through the phone of Benjamin Hassan, 25, after nearly every professional match he plays.
“I promise to find you and destroy your leg so hard that you can’t walk anymore » turns up in Sloane Stephens’ phone. in addition to numerous monkey emojis. “I am human, after last night’s match I got 2K + messages of abuse/anger from people upset by yesterday’s result. It’s so hard to read messages like these…” Stephens wrote on Instagram after her third round U.S. Open loss to Angelique Kerber.
Online shaming and abuse in sport has been prevalent since nearly the advent of Twitter in 2006, but seeped into the media this summer after England’s penalty-shootout loss to Italy in the UEFA European Championship, which resulted in a torrent of online racial epithets — and crackdowns by the UK government. Tennis players have largely remained mum on the topic, choosing to focus on fans and tournaments and business-as-usual, but this week, two WTA players — Sloane Stephens and Shelby Rogers — went public with their off-court distress over Twitter, Instagram and the like.
Shelby Rogers goes for a forehand during her fourth-round match against the UK’s Emma Raducanu, who beat her in straight sets. She said she was expecting “nine million death threats and whatnot.”
“I kind of wish social media didn’t exist,” Rogers said at a U.S. Open press conference following her fourth round US Open defeat to the UK’s Emma Raducanu. “Here we are. It’s a big part of marketing now, we have contracts, we have to post certain things.
“I don’t know, you could probably go through my profile right now, I’m probably a fat pig and, you know, words that I can’t say right now. But, I mean, it is what it is. You try not to take it to heart, and it’s the unfortunate side of any sport and what we do.”
While the incident rate of online abuse in tennis remains elusive, a recent study by football anti-racism group Kick It Out revealed that professional soccer players received 134,000 discriminatory posts between August 2014 and March 2015 — an average of almost 17,000 abusive posts per month. As talk has started stirring around the mental toll on the players who receive such virulent and violent messages, few have focused attention on the reasons for the hatred or how to resolve the issue.
Online sports betting by companies such as Coral in the UK is a key player in the perpetration of online abuse against tennis players. With endless matches and odds, tennis comes second only to football in overall betting.
One of the key enablers of online abuse is the global sports betting market. At an overall value of $3 trillion, around 12 percent of bookmaker revenue comes from tennis — second only to soccer in many countries. The sheer number of matches taking place almost every day of the calendar year — up to 18 different markets per match, ranging from winner odds to serve and forehand percentages — contribute to a greater number of people losing money and focusing their vitriol on players. The likes of Djokovic, Federer and even Felix Auger-Aliassime have social media managers to edit out and respond to the messages they receive; the rest don’t.
Secondly, social media removes the checks and balances of traditional media, as well as the face-to-face interaction, that might have once set parameters on abusive types. Finally, the forces that help tennis players, such as Maria Sharapova, who retired in 2020, become recognisable, often have unintended effects, such as sexualising or infantilising them and therefore, make them more targeted when they reject a perpetrator, according to a 2015 study on the social media attention that Sharapova received during Wimbledon by the University of Bournemouth in England.
Many athletes, like Sherapova, seemingly brush off the abuse and move forward. But they actually don’t. Beyond fears of physical violence stemming from the threats, athletes can experience not only performance anxiety, but also, sleeplessness and over all distress. In 2013, 22-year-old Canadian tennis player Rebecca Marino quit, unable to cope with fans “berating” her on social media.
Rebecca Marino, then a 22-year-old tennis player from Canada, quit professional tennis due to her inability to cope with fans “berating” her on social media.
To deal with the added pressure, professional tours have put together support networks for players affected by such abuse, including ITF- and WTA-run counseling programmes. ATP University, which is designed to help tennis players with all aspects of their careers, held a class on assisting players with social media abuse, according to Romanian doubles player Florin Mergea. “If it gets really bad, they told us to report it to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) who will take it from there,” he told VICE media in 2016. But players are sceptical that the TIU, which has its hands full investigating gamesmanship and thrown matches, takes them seriously.
Other associations have stood with football in ending the hate. Even before the Euros fiasco, England’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) participated in a weekend-long social media blackout to “demonstrate our collective anger at the constant abuse on social media received by professional athletes, as well as others across the world, which goes without any real-world consequences for perpetrators. The LTA has called on social media companies for such measures as preventative filtering and blocking; effective verification of users, real-life consequences for online discriminatory abuse and warning messages for would-be abusers to stop before they send.
Lastly, many players, including Hassan and American Taylor Townsend, have started engaging with watchdog tech companies, such as Sportradar, which uses Facebook and Instagram handles to locate the details of perpetrators and pass them on to police. Investigators in six different locators have contacted abusers, although all await legal action.
In the meantime, athletes such as Rogers, Stephens, Hassan and other will likely adapt the “very avid block, delete and report” approach of Taylor Townsend.”This whole year, we’ve been really talking and diving into a lot of issues that make people extremely uncomfortable and I think this is one that is a part of sport that we do need to address,” she concluded.
Player Taylor Townsend will pose for selfies with fans, but vows to actively “block, delete and report” any social media abusers.