Virtual Maltreatment in sport: Sexualisation, racism, abuse and social media.
Start date: 1 September 2016
Virtual maltreatment is a rapidly emerging and highly significant issue within contemporary sport and can be defined as: Direct or non-direct online communication that is stated in an aggressive, exploitative, manipulative, threatening or lewd manner and is designed to elicit fear, emotional or psychological upset, distress, alarm or feelings of inferiority (Kavanagh & Jones, 2014, p. 36). Common types of virtual maltreatment include physical, emotional, sexual and discriminatory abuse targeted at individual’s or groups in online spaces.
This study examines such behaviour by exploring the negative social media coverage of the top five seeded female athletes during the 2015 Wimbledon tennis championships. Using a netnographic approach, an analysis of two popular social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter) was conducted to examine the social commentary surrounding this event, particularly focussing on negative online interaction in such spaces. The presence of abuse in these spaces was widespread and female athletes are often the direct targets of such behavior. In the current study, virtual maltreatment manifested in a number of ways including: The sexualisation of athletes; questioning an athlete’s gender identity; threatening physical and sexual contact; emotionally ridiculing athletes; and by performing racism against athletes. These findings demonstrate how social media provides a space for unregulated physical and sexual abuse of female athletes in a way that traditional sports media does not. Virtual abuse and maltreatment is identified as a significant social problem which requires further consideration in academic literature.