Tennis stars continue to face social media threats

In this social media age, professional athletes continue to embrace various platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as a means to share information with their fans.

Tennis pros such as Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal are among the most followed players on Twitter worldwide.

But this easy means of two-way communication is not always a good experience. Many who compete on both the ATP and WTA tours continue to find themselves the recipient of negative comments on their personal social media accounts solely based on their recent results, and the issue of “cyber bullying” is a growing problem.

Tennis, however, is international, and players, and those who vent hate against them, change locations week after week. Can the sport itself do any more to prevent such abuse from happening?

Probably not, says attorney Jeff Fannell, who in addition to having 12 years of experience in sports law also serves as deputy director and professor for St. John’s University International & Comparative Sports Law program. With tennis players essentially being independent contractors who choose to have personal social media accounts, the tours themselves do not have any real legal obligation to increase monitoring more than they already do.

“No one has to have a Facebook account or to be on Twitter,” Fannell said. “Those are individual decisions that are made. Not that they are wrong at all. But that is an individual decision. There are many players who choose not to be involved on social media at all.

“If a player does go on social media what comes with it unfortunately is you are going to have some good and you are going to have some bad. I don’t see how the governing bodies have any obligation to police it. They are free to do so if they desire, but I don’t see that they have any obligation for something that is purely voluntary on the part of the individual player.”

While unhappy fans sometimes feel the need to shake a virtual fist after a player loses, often the bulk of the incidents come from online bettors, many from overseas, who make daily wagers on players worldwide. The abuse ranges from negative comments, to insults and even to threats of physical harm.

Wimbledon was no exception.

Angelique Kerber of Germany, after she lost early in the first week, received multiple death threats on her Facebook account. The WTA is investigating the incident.

U.S. Fed Cup team member Varvara Lepchenko also found a similar message on her Facebook page telling her that if she didn’t lose her first-round match in London, she wouldn’t live.

“I obviously ignored it,” Lepchenko said via email. “I used to pay more attention to those things. Now I don’t really care.”

When asked if she has heard of similar experiences from other players, Lepchenko said, “I’ve heard comments, but we always laugh at some of them because they are just hopeless bettors that have no idea how hard we work or that there is actually life besides sitting in front of the live scores and hoping for someone to lose or win. I feel pity for these people.”

For its part, the WTA does provide social media education to all of its players, including what steps to take if they feel they are the victims of online abuse. The WTA also monitors and reports incidents, including to the proper authorities if necessary.

Sometimes, the abuse is too much to take. Rebecca Marino of Canada cited repeated cyber bullying as the main reason she retired from tennis at age 22 earlier this year.

Monitoring social media is often up to players

How players deal with online harassment is often a personal choice. Wimbledon champion Andy Murray uses humor when responding directly to those who berate him on Twitter. Others choose to simply ignore negative messages entirely.

Because of their busy schedules, some pros choose to have a manager or publicist oversee their social media accounts. Though this provides a layer of protection from unwanted messages, this reliance on someone else can also backfire.

Michael Russell learned this the hard way after it appeared the American had posted an angry tirade on his Facebook page aimed at two-time major winner Lleyton Hewitt after both men competed at the ATP event in Newport, Rhode Island.

A day later, Russell apologized and said it was his publicist, and not Russell himself, who posted the rant calling Hewitt a “douche bag” and a “racist.”

“To be 100% clear about recent statements on my Facebook page regarding Lleyton Hewitt, unfortunately, my publicist posted those statements,” said Russell, who accepted responsibility for the incident. “From here on out, I will monitor my page very carefully, making sure all statements made on it are mine.”

Can or should tours do more?

Robin Haase of the Netherlands recently said on Dutch TV that he asked the ATP Tour to intervene more often if a player receives hateful or threatening messages. Haase said he receives daily insults. Sometimes he can laugh about it. But not always.

“I hope you are very ill and I hope you drop dead tomorrow come over every week,” said Haase. “What are these people doing, I think.”

The ATP declined to comment about Haase, but did say in a statement that players are encouraged to report threats or suspicious social media postings, which are then investigated by internal security.

While there hasn’t yet been a reported case of an online abuser making a physical, in-person attack against a player similar to the Monica Seles incident in Hamburg 20 years ago, the possibility remains. Only then might changes to current social media monitoring by the tours occur according to Fannell.

“I think most associations and leagues take player safety seriously and take all reasonable measures to protect players. What is reasonable may change if the circumstances change, and certainly knowledge of cyber-threats against a player alters the calculus,” Fannell said.

Players will continue to have the support and resources from both tours to deal with the growing threat of cyber bullying. But like a troublesome opponent on the court, most tennis pros will have to deal with this problematic issue on their own.

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