Sports journalist Erin Riley trolled after commenting on AFL Grand Final

A long way to go: Adam Goodes (right) was racially abused during the grand final.

A long way to go: Adam Goodes (right) was racially abused during the grand final. Photo: Quinn Rooney

No matter how much experience you have with online abuse and trolling, it still has the power to shock you with both the ferocity of its hatred and the overwhelmingly imbalanced nature of its anger. Sometimes the only thing you can do is stand there open mouthed and marvel once again at the fact people think we’re living in a post-feminist era.

So it was that I reacted to news that sports journalist Erin Riley was enduring relentless online hostility following the publication of a weekend article in which she challenged the AFL to take a bolder stand on the racism, sexism and homophobia exhibited by some of its fanbase. Riley, whose Honours thesis looked at the history of Australian Rules football in NSW before 1982 and who has been writing professionally about sport for almost a decade, wrote succinctly and passionately about the need for better action on bigotry within the AFL culture. While attending the Grand Final on Saturday, Riley - a long-time Swans supporter - was angered by the actions of some Hawthorn supporters seated near her. She writes:

A screen shot of the Twitter abuse hurled at Erin Riley.

A screen shot of the Twitter abuse hurled at Erin Riley.

“They shouted that Adam Goodes was racist. They referred to Sydney players only by female pronouns – implying, of course, that being female is to be laughable and weak. And when the Hawks led by a large margin in the last quarter, they started chanting, "Sydney take it up the a---, doodah, doodah".”

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Riley complained to a security guard, only to be told that there was nothing he could do because “all the fans do it”. She says that another complainant was met with the same reaction.

As far as revelations go, none of this is particularly surprising. The shortfalls of a society still wrestling with its own innate sexism means that any large congregation of people (particularly those meeting in an arena pumping with competition and testosterone) will boast a minority of people determined to either ruin it for everyone else or reduce it to the lowest common denominator.

Writer Erin Riley was harrassed by online trolls after her AFL Grand Final comment piece was published on SMH.

Writer Erin Riley was harrassed by online trolls after her AFL Grand Final comment piece was published on SMH. Photo: Facebook

That a handful of people - Hawks supporters or otherwise - thought it would be hilarious to yell out racist, sexist and homophobic epithets in their drunken stupor doesn’t surprise me.

But what does still manage to surprise me is the utter hostility with which some people will treat others when they speak out against such behaviour. For her efforts, Riley has been called a ‘retard’, a ‘s--t person’ who ‘deserves all the crap [she’s] been given’, a ‘disgraceful sexist man-hater’ (because it wouldn’t be trolling if it didn’t follow all the rules of the cliche book), a liar and, bizarrely, a racist.

She’s been told to kill herself, while others have pointed to her as proof that ‘women are dumb c--ts who don’t know s--t about footy’. Someone even made a big show of alerting Tinder, inviting a volunteer to ‘take one for the team’ and ‘get Riley a root’. Because the obvious solution to stop women from being upset about misogyny and juvenile sexism is just to get a good dick up them. Honestly, you could power several small nations for decades with the force of that kind of massively unwarranted male ego.

The internet shorthand of Lewis’ Law dictates that feminism will be justified by the comments on any article about feminism, and it’s true in Riley’s case. Not one but two threads devoted to humiliating and ridiculing her were started on Big Footy, with commenters assessing her as all manner of things ranging from ‘mentally unstable’ to overly sensitive. (And can we just enjoy for a moment the predictability of people posting excessively sensitive vitriol about how insulted they are because other overly sensitive people are too easily insulted? The irony is so crisp it could cut glass.)

One poster linked to her Twitter feed (a classic online dog whistle often employed by the likes of Andrew Bolt that encourages feverish bullies to rush forth and tear strips off) and mused, ‘61,000 tweets? Someone is a bit full of their own importance.’ Because, I don’t know, being a regular user of the seventh most popular website in the world means you think you’re hot s--t or something.

If the AFL and its associated fan-based culture doesn’t have a problem with women and other minorities, why is still so difficult to speak openly about some of its seedier aspects without being threatened with vile abuse and ridicule? What does it say about the values of a culture when a large part of this retaliation involves fans demanding complainants to ‘suck it up Princess!’ and accept that ‘subversive humour’ is part of a long and glorious tradition of AFL larrikinism?

The days of ongoing bigotry and casual misogyny on the field and in the stands of one of Australia’s most loved sporting monoliths being excused as just a bit of rowdy fun are over. As Riley says, football isn’t just a game for white men any more and its community culture should reflect that. If the AFL is really serious about breeding inclusivity, it needs to reflect that by adopting a zero tolerance policy to all forms of abuse. As General-Lietenant David Morrison famously said of the ADF, ‘The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.’ 

In her 2013 book ‘Night Games’, an exploration of sex, power and sport, journalist Anna Krien addresses some of the conflicting feelings which rose for her throughout the research process. She writes, “The last thing I wanted was to be a killjoy - and yet I kept recalling the words of the Australian sociologist Lois Bryson. She once wrote that feminists who ignore sport do so at their own peril, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was all the more true when it came to footy.”

It may be true that the AFL has made great strides in changing its culture on the ground. But judging from the obnoxious and brutal response to Riley’s weekend piece, some of the attitudes of its fans still have a long way to go. It’s time for the AFL to stop passing the ball to someone else, and start doing something.