The USWNT was the most harassed group in sports in 2023, and this, sadly, should surprise no one

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On Monday, I wrote a column about being sick of the Kansas City Chiefs. As far as the things I write go, it was fairly light-hearted. No one was accused of anything heinous, it was mostly me whining about Patrick Mahomes throwing a fit at the end of Sunday’s game and how it’s impossible to avoid Travis Kelce anywhere I go. “What a miserable see you next Tuesday,” one guy commented on my Instagram. “I hope AI takes your job.” And that’s about the only comment I can print. Most of what men say to me online since 2015 is full of gendered slurs, body shaming and violent fantasies about my death or imminent injury. I am far from alone. This is the reality for women on the internet who dare to express an opinion about, well, anything, or who even dare to exist. The audacity.

Which NFL Bros reign supreme? Watt or Kelce?

So it was zero surprise that a new FIFA & FIFPRO report found that one in five players of the 2023 Women’s World Cup were subjected to online abuse during the tournament, with the members of the USWNT leading everyone for the dubious honor of being harassed online the most. The report also found that nearly half of the 5 million verified messages studied were sexual, sexist or homophobic in nature.

The report listed some key takeaways, including that more than 150 individual players were targeted with “discriminatory, abusive or threatening content,” two players (one from the US and one from Argentina) were targeted far and away more than any others, and that politicians’ comments (which were mostly supportive) triggered large sections of abuse. The largest swath of abuse was sexualized, with homophobic comments, misogynist comments and racist comments following in short order.

This, of course, is not breaking news to anyone who has spent any time on social media. But what is shocking is how inured we’ve all become to seeing it. Back in 2016, when ESPN’s Sarah Spain and I made this video, people were still stunned that anonymous users were getting away with saying these kinds of things to women online. People often ask me if it’s gotten any better. It has not. And while we may have grown thicker skins and gotten a few tools to help us manage the abuse, the vitriol that women face on social media has only gotten worse.

Many women, including myself, grew up not even being able to envision a world in which millions of people turn out to watch a global sporting event composed solely of women and non-binary folks, with millions more watching on TV. The WNBA and NWSL have exploded in popularity, and the newly-formed PWHL is set to join them in 2024 (I’m still salty about Chicago not getting a team — are they saying this isn’t a hockey town?!?). But there seems to be a price to pay for all this progress and it’s that the women who are smashing through glass ceilings in the name of sports are subjected to the worst aspects of humanity online. My best advice is that if you’re a woman pro athlete, stay out of your mentions.

I never set out to write about online harassment of women, yet it’s become such a dominant fixture of my work and my life that I don’t even remember who I was before I started talking about it. As Anita Sarkeesian said in the documentary Netizens, which focuses on online harassment, “The thing about being attacked for four years is that it takes away your humanity. You don’t even get to feel the extent of the human range of emotions because you can’t, or you’d be floored all the time. You have to be hyper-vigilant, you can’t make jokes and you can’t be human, and you can’t exist in the world like everyone else.”

I’ve found this to be true. When my children were little, sharing a funny story about a parenting fail turned into dozens of men calling me a terrible mother and telling me my children hated me. A light-hearted joke about eating too much spun out into hundreds of men telling me I had diabetes and didn’t care about my children because I was going to leave them motherless after I died of complications from a disease I don’t have. Sharing a little story about my husband turned into a long discussion of what kind of beta cuck would ever marry me, and how disgusting it would be to have physical relations with me. And I hate that other women, many of them in their teens or barely out of them, are being forced to face this same malevolence just because they want to play a professional sport. It’s wrong, and for some reason, we’ve stopped calling it out. Stopped caring about it.

In a 2014 article at the now-defunct site The Awl, John Herrman wrote that “A great number of men, online and off, understand feminism as aggression . . . They live this life on the streets, where they are nearly unaccountable, and argue it online, where they are totally unaccountable.” I can’t even begin to count how many of the men who have sent me vicious, violent, venomous threats also sport social media avatars where they are smiling and happily holding daughters. Too often, #GirlDad is in their bio.

I used to think that at some point, if I could just convince these men of my humanity, make them understand the damage they cause, they would stop. But they don’t stop. They’ve only grown in number, and any woman who steps into what they perceive as a “male space” is, in their mind, asking for it. Especially if you talk about “hot-button topics” like equality, equal pay and reproductive rights. Do we have any doubt that Megan Rapinoe was the American who received the most online abuse during the World Cup? She breaks all the rules men have set up for her. If a woman is considered “hot,” keeps her head down, focuses on the sport and only the sport, she might be allowed to exist in peace. Anything more, and she’s fair game, as far as a significant segment of Twitter is concerned.

I am aware that, in sharing my own experiences here, the trolls who routinely comment “you make everything about you!” will only add this piece to the pile, and that’s fine with me. Because in the online world, if you speak out about what’s happening to you— if you see something happening to someone else and say, “hey, I, too, have experienced this” — you are “playing the victim.” And probably doing it for attention. You whore.

But in the past few years, I have become despondent over the way women in general are treated on social media, and enraged by the lack of action platforms have taken to stop it. But more, I’m angry about the way we just ignore it, and tell women to ignore it. And it’s devastating to think that young women, who are breaking barriers their elders never had a chance at, are facing such invective when they should be celebrated. They should be defended. By all of us. If you see something, say something.

I often wonder, when I drive by fields of little girls playing soccer, how many of their dads have said something awful to a woman online. How many of their dads cheer on their daughters when they’re small and powerless, but revile older women challenge the status quo. The answer is probably more of them than I’d like to think. Because empowered little girls turn into empowered women who push boundaries. I hope to see all of them on the world stage one day, showing people what it truly means to “play like a girl.” And I hope their fathers come for the trolls who come for them.

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