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Women's Cricket

Here come the trolls: Women’s cricket’s popularity explosion has an ugly side

Alyssa Healy, captain, UP Warriorz, WPL 2023
by Karunya Keshav 5 minute read

With the increasing profile of women’s cricket comes an uptick in the online abuse of its stars. The time to deal with it is now, writes Karunya Keshav.

When Alyssa Healy was named Australia captain for the tour of India late in 2022, she logged off Twitter. “I didn’t want any of that external noise in my head, especially if we lost a couple of games,” she said.

Healy, known for speaking her mind on and off the field, gets plenty of pushback, some of it vitriolic, on social media. She has been surprisingly forbearing about it: “Being nasty or hateful is not OK, but everyone has their right to their opinion. For me being vocal on social media, I’ve got to expect it coming back my way. I deal with it however I can.”


For Healy, dealing with it sometimes means laughing it off. “If it makes you feel better to reply cruelly go nuts,” she tweeted on a particularly controversial post. “Water off a ducks back!”

But she’s also happy not to engage, as before the India tour. She hasn’t tweeted all year and isn’t missing it one bit. “I’ve turned that all off,” she said. “I’m happy as Larry.”

South Africa wicketkeeper Sinalo Jafta took a longer route to finding a similar equanimity about social media. Today she knows that “People are allowed to have their opinions, but it doesn’t define who I am.”

But, a few months ago, online abuse pushed her into alcoholism, for which she checked into rehab. “Social media, it doesn’t support you,” she told reporters after the T20 World Cup final. “A really tough day and people just pull it to social media … Just the bullying online, that sent me over the edge.”

Healy’s and Jafta’s are along a spectrum of negative experiences online that cricketers, especially women, face. But there’s growing acknowledgement that players should no longer have to deal with these challenges of social media on their own.

The issue of social media abuse disproportionately affects women. According to a 2021 study from the Economist Intelligence Unit, more than a third of women worldwide have experienced abuse online.

These figures get more startling among athletes. A World Athletics study found that 87 per cent of the social media abuse during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was directed at female athletes.

While there are no similar studies in cricket, going through the accounts of leading players shows the increasing popularity of women’s cricket in recent years has also invited increasing instances of inappropriate behaviour and abuse.

“As the profile [of a sport] grows, players are going to be more susceptible,” said Tom Harding, VP, Intelligence and Investigations at Sportradar, a sports technology company whose offerings include social media integrity education.

Apart from the ridicule, racist language and hate speech directed at all athletes, women also have to also deal with sexualisation, homophobic remarks and comments about weight or how they look.

“The abuse directed at females is more gender specific or sexualised compared to male athletes,” explained Harding. “They are targeted more for gender and physical appearance.

“Generally, you see a lot of abuse is in response to on-field events, a reaction to a player making a mistake. But gender-related and sexualised abuse is more sustained.”

Footballer Leigh Nicol, for example, had her intimate images digitally stolen and they are still used to target her on social media. Nicol, who has worked with Sportradar to fight back against those harassing her online by identifying them, has also revealed in interviews that she’s shared her experiences with the New Zealand cricket teams.

Such experiences online change how women engage on social media. The EIU study found that 43 per cent of women felt unsafe, and one in three thought twice before posting any content online.

This self-censorship impacts female athletes: Social media is advantageous to women in that it has allowed them to attract sponsorships, build fandom and showcase their skills at a time when traditional media doesn’t always give them the space to do so.

A recent sports industry report by KORE declared that when brands tie up with sportspersons for social media ads, the rate of growth of ad value for female athletes is double that of men’s. The report also put Smriti Mandhana at No.9 globally in terms of social media ad value.

So, not only is the abuse bad for players’ mental health, but also for their potential brand value. Which is why it is becoming more important to provide them the support they need.

“Everyone recognises that more needs to be done,” said Harding, “but who should be investigating this? Who should be doing more? Is it teams and clubs, or federations, or governments?

“Everyone in the industry has a duty of care to the athletes. There needs to be collaboration and partnership.”

On International Women’s Day, the International Cricket Council announced their intention to protect female players and officials from online abuse.

This, they said to emailed questions, came after ICC team members spotted abusive behaviour on separate occasions during the Under-19 and T20 World Cups. It became a subject of discussion, which led to the need to take proactive steps to mitigate re-occurrences.

According to stakeholders, tackling the issue involves education and awareness to enable prevention, as well as post-incident support.

During the Under-19 World Cup, for instance, the ICC Media and Communications department held a workshop with all the participating teams. Apart from media training, the young players as well as staff were made aware about social media best practices and given tips about how to tackle social media bullying and trolling.

The global governing body has also pledged to work with members to “develop a common policy to minimise the impact of online abusers”.

For athletes, it’s important to see that something is being done, said Harding: “Having a mechanism to report is important. Is there education on how to capture [abusive messages], how to identify it, what to do in terms of blocking certain profiles, not to engage with certain profiles, not replying to this stuff? You see arguments occur, and that’s what abusers seek.”

Technology can help identify accounts responsible so that individuals or governing bodies can report it to law enforcement, he explained.

The ICC is proposing an “in-tournament monitoring service”, which will be a “technological solution with human support from a yet to be identified resource/supplier”.

In this they can perhaps learn from the Women’s Tennis Association, which used a third party to help assess the risk of any threatening or unwelcome communication and then manage it.

As of now, the ICC have not discussed extending post-incidence support in legal or mental health areas. It also remains to see how they will tackle the issue on their own digital channels. But, as mentioned previously, this leaves room for collaboration. Apart from national bodies themselves, player management firms and T20 league franchises have the greatest incentives to create digital safe spaces for players.

Players are made of stern stuff. They’d never have got where they are if they’d paid heed to everyone, online and in real life, asking them to stay in their lane and stick to working in the kitchen. But, as a changing world is emphasising, they should never have to put up with it in the first place.

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