Trolling, Just Not Sports and the failure of governance

On several occasions this week a film has edged its way into one of my networked media feeds, and on one occasion into the legacy world of hard copy print media. This short film features a number of unnamed men sitting with two women sports journalists and reading out tweets sent them. These tweets are offensive, hateful, violent, abusive, repugnant. They are packed full of statements, comments and observations from which the readers (and I) recoiled. In my naïvety I was alarmed that anyone would think, let alone send those comments into the twittersphere or the blogipeligo – but of course I should not have been: it was the content that shocked me, not that they existed.

It’s the saying out loud that matters – giving voice as a political shock tactic – and that was the point of the exercise initiated by the campaign group Just Not Sports who approached Sarah Spain and Julie Dicaro, both from the US network CBS, for the piece. The result is we get to see a group of very uncomfortable men reading, out loud and to them, ‘mean tweets’ that have been sent to Spain and Dicaro.

The point comes in the accompanying hashtag – #morethanmean: ‘mean tweets’ is here exposed as a euphemism (just like ‘Mean Girls’), although perhaps also as a device to manage the vitriol and hatred that lies behind them. Anecdotally, it seems not uncommon for those on the receiving end of hate speech to mitigate its effects by downplaying it. Not surprisingly, this and related points have been picked up by various commentators, such as Shireen Ahmed’s Guardian column considering Spain and Dicaro’s experiences in the context of women in sport, or the discussion on CBSN the day after the piece went out where Spain joined Dana Jacobson and Josh Elliot to discuss the issues.

For those of us who keep an eye on (re)mediated sport, especially in its on-line versions, there is nothing all that surprising in these and other commentaries and discussions. The complexity of ‘trolling’ means that these discussions at times reproduce some of the positions that accept the legitimacy of the existence of the views being expressed. It is a liberal ‘right to your opinion’ position that leads to the politically defeatist ‘would you say those things to your mother/sister?’ question. The danger is that this question as an oppositional tactic implicitly accepts that these things might be thought, but shouldn’t be said – when the real issue should be: ‘what on earth makes you think it is legitimate to even think those things about anybody?’. The ‘anonymity’ afforded by the internet is often incorrectly used to explain away ‘mean tweets’, when surely the issue is that there are people out there who have, let alone express, those reprehensible views. ‘Trolling’ is, of course, itself a euphemism, conjuring up nursery story images of gruff billy goats and bridges, with the effect that those of us who do not receive them don’t quite realize the violence and hatred they articulate; this too is part of the power of the film.

As the The Guardian and CBSN as well as other discussions have noted, there is little meaningful advice given about what the recipients of ‘trolling’ should do – and lest we think it applies only to women in sport, we only need to look at the coordinated attacks on Anita Sarkeesian in the so-called ‘#Gamergate’ incident to realise that this is something about women in ‘men’s space’. What’s more, in the last few years we have seen high profile convictions in UK courts of ‘trolls’ attacking activists such as Caroline Criado-Perez, who had the temerity to launch a campaign to have a woman on at least one item of UK currency, suggesting the subversive, out-to-destroy-civilisation-as-we-know-it Jane Austen for the £5 note, or for racist tweets relating to footballer Fabrice Muamba’s on-field heart attack in 2012: convictions that disprove the power of the courts to use sentencing to prevent offences.

What is curiously, but not surprisingly, absent from the discussions so far is the role or culpability of sports organisations and governing bodies in dealing with or addressing this kind of misogyny. There is little doubt that these kinds of attacks are worse for women, especially feminist women, who express an opinion but in the stubbornly masculine homosocial world of sport and its organisations there seems to be little if any attempt to confront the issue. We shouldn’t be surprised. Many sports organisations seem aware of and are willing to adopt a position on the persistence of racist outlooks in their worlds, and in some cases, such as the Australian Football League, seem able to fairly successfully confront the issue, although the AFL had to be dragged into its position on racial vilification, and the Adam Goodes debacle in 2015 suggests just how shallow the Australian Football world’s grasp of the problem of racism is. One of the problems with the racism and sport debate, at least in the UK, is the sense from the sport institutions that a claim can be made that formal mechanisms to prevent overt racist actions means there is no longer a problem – they are blind to the question of institutional racism.

When it comes to sexism, much of the world of sport is unable to even recognise the problem, let alone develop meaningful ways to confront its most overt expression. Taking only one case where women have a higher profile than most sports, tennis remains a bastion of retrograde outlooks – let’s just consider Eugenie Bouchard’s twirl at the 2015 Australian Open, or Raymond Moore and Novak Djokovic’s denigration of women players after the 2016 US Open in March.

There are two things going on here: they are related but distinct. The first is sport’s sex-based distinction, where participation is divided by sex even where there is no obvious reason for suggesting it might be legitimate – such as pool or darts, or dare I suggest surfing or skate boarding, (equestrian sports are one of the few well established sports where men and women compete against each other in individual competition, but that comes with the addition/intervention of the horse). There is a debate here about whether this sex-based distinction is legitimate. The second, and in this case more obviously linked but in part a consequence of sex-based differences in participation, is sports’ masculine homosociality – a phenomenon some ‘trolls’ seem to be trying to defend: many however are just a**holes (or whatever the correct DSM V term is) – let’s not cut them any slack.

Sports institutions’ failure to confront sexism, their failure to recognise the structural form that sexism takes in sport or even to challenge much in the way of sexist practice – let’s not even go to the question of non-heteronormative sexualities – leaves them in part culpable for the pervasiveness of the kind of vitriol directed at Spain, Dicaro and pretty much any woman who seems to have a view on any sporting issue many men see at their specialist area. About a year ago I suggested that we need to understand sexist ‘banter’ as a form of patriarchal low intensity conflict designed to keep women in their ‘proper sporting (marginal) place’. Low intensity conflict was militarily refined during the Cold War: ‘trolling’ of this kind, along with the kinds of misogynist politics seen around rapes charges such as, in English football the case against Ched Evans, in the USA the Stubbenville, OH and the Lisa Simpson cases, or in Australia the case of the pseudonymous ‘Justin Dyer’ explored by Anna Krein in Night Games, is part of a hot war against women that sports organisations, including but not only the national and international governing bodies, need to take much more decisive action (in some cases, any action at all) against. Until they show some leadership and use their governance roles to join others in working towards an inclusive sports culture, all the lamentations, condemnation and expressions of support for those ‘trolled’ will be no more than vacuousness and facile hot air.

In the meantime, we should thank ‘Just Not Sports’ and those involved in the film for bringing home how malign ‘trolling’ can be; we should also be looking for ways to pressure sports bodies – teams, clubs, federations and all – to take coherent and coordinated action led by feminist politics to destroy the retrograde elements of sports’ patriarchal ways.

About author
Malcolm MacLean is Reader in the Culture & History of Sport in the Faculty of Applied Sciences where he is co-lead of the Exercise & Sport Research Centre and Associate Dean Quality & Standards at the University of Gloucestershire in England. He is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and currently Council member of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport.
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