Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Sexist Abuse Towards Women Aussie Rules Players Prompts News Website Action

Posted on 9 March 2020 by Muireann Duffy

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A Melbourne news website has disabled all comments on their Australian Football League Women’s coverage due to the high number of ‘vile’ remarks ‘of a grossly sexist tone’ being directed at the women’s game.

 A statement from Herald Sun explains: “The measure was taken because of the constant trolling, harassment and disgraceful commentary by some members of our community.”

While the AFLW has been professional since 2017 and has expanded to include 14 teams, much of the comments on the Herald Sun’s coverage attacked the standard of the sport.

Some commenters claimed Aussie Rules is a man’s sport, while others called for the players to ‘get back into the kitchen’. One story alone had over 300 abusive comments.

The decision was made after players, commentators, fans and clubs appealed to the Herald Sun to disable the comments section.

Although the abusive comments are a real cause for concern within the AFLW, this may be an indication of how much the sporting landscape is changing according to Professor of Sociology of Sport, Toni Bruce in the University of Auckland.

“When sport is undergoing significant change, that’s when we often see the virulent, hateful responses. The fact that this is happening is actually an indicator of real change in terms of women’s entry into the sport,” says Professor Bruce.

“It seems contradictory, but it is often real change that triggers these kinds of reactions. If things weren’t changing, if women’s participation was still marginal and marginalised, there would be no need for this kind of push-back.”

While the abuse may point towards change, this is not the first time the AFLW has been at the centre of the debate regarding the perception of women in sport.

Last year, when photographer Michael Willson captured a now iconic photo of Tayla Harris kicking a goal, the Carlton player received a slew of sexist abuse after the image was posted online.

The photo (shown below) was taken down, to the outrage of the public, which lead to it being reposted. 

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The message was clear: the representation of women in sport should not be diminished because it makes a small section of the population feel uncomfortable.

These tide-turning societal debates need to occur in order to challenge ignorance.

“It is the discussion that’s important because it creates a context in which people, including those identified as ‘trolls’, can start to think differently,” says Professor Bruce. 

“The trolls are loud and deeply hurtful, but they are not the majority, so turning off the comments section reduces their impact on individuals but also reflects their marginal position overall.

“Women in sport are a relatively easy target in these traditionally male sports because their presence is so new.  However, what’s more important is the reaction of the sporting community as a whole, which has largely been supportive of women’s growing involvement in Australian rules football,” adds Professor Bruce.