Grace Min picked up her phone and scrolled through her social media notifications, like she always does after her tennis matches. As a professional athlete, Min has become accustomed to being on the receiving end of hateful comments online, so she was hardly surprised by what she saw.
But the messages the 22-year-old read on her Instagram page last November after her three-set quarterfinal victory at the International Tennis Federation tournament in Waco, Tex. came three days after the end of a bitter presidential election race, when personal attacks had become the new norm.
So instead of brushing off the demeaning and threatening comments about her appearance, race and gender from the anonymous user, Min, who ended up reaching the final of the Texas tournament, decided to post a screenshot of the comments on her Instagram account. To see those comments and Min’s response (warning: offensive language), click here.
“Usually I tend to ignore it or leave it be,” Min told Excelle Sports, “but that kind of speech or sexism or degrading women or immediately tying someone’s worth to how they look or what ethnicity they are … It just seems to me that it’s becoming more publicized and people are becoming more OK with it, which is what’s been bothering me.”
[More from Excelle Sports: Locker Room Talk: Female college athletes share real stories of sexual harassment]
Min’s experience of online abuse is hardly an isolated incident. The popularity and prevalence of social media have made elite athletes more accessible to fans, but also more susceptible to cyberbullying. And as Min’s example shows, comments toward women athletes are often gender-based and sexually threatening in nature.
It was a pattern that Min, currently ranked No. 128 on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour, slowly began to realize.
“I did notice trends where it is gender based, where it is based not only on offending how I play but who I am, what race I am—just things that don’t seem related to my actual tennis,” said Min, whose parents were born in South Korea.
When Kathy Martin, WTA’s senior director of athlete assistance, first joined the league 20 years ago, social media didn’t exist like it does today. But now, Martin sees it as an area in which athletes need continual training, just like any other aspect of their career.
Throughout her tenure with the WTA, Martin has helped tour players improve their mental fitness, communication skills and stress management. Within the last 10 years, she has also been instrumental in organizing a small group to help educate players on social media and ensure that they feel safe from any threats they receive.
[More from Excelle Sports: Sydney Leroux Dwyer, Ali Krieger fight back against online bullying]
“We have a dedicated system within the WTA,” said Martin, who also works with the International Olympic Committee on non-accidental violence (harassment and abuse) prevention in sport. “I can’t give all the details, but we have a variety of individuals behind the scenes to monitor and track and help the players in the process of reporting and making sure they’re safe.”
Unfortunately, though, young women, whether they’re pro athletes or not, are much more likely to be victims of particularly severe forms of online harassment, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study.
Pew researchers discovered that young women ages 18–24 “experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: Twenty-six percent of these young women have been stalked online and 25 percent were the target of online sexual harassment.”
This past November, the Data and Society Research Institute released a study that found that “men and women are equally likely to face harassment, but women experience a wider variety of online abuse, including more serious violations.”
None of these findings has surprised Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland and author of the book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.
“It’s almost like the more different you are, the more you’re targeted for that,” said Citron, who has also experienced first-hand the type of online abuse toward women that she has spent years researching. “While men are often called mean names—and that’s not to suggest that they don’t face abuse—for women, the abuse is more likely sexually threatening and demeaning.”
[More from Excelle Sports: Pro golfer Paige Spiranac opens up about the cyberbullying she has encountered]
In early December, professional golfer Paige Spiranac broke down in tears at a press conference while talking about the degree of online abuse she has faced as a social media celebrity. She says the threats and comments she received eventually led to her depression.
“It’s really difficult,” Spiranac said on the eve of the 2016 Dubai Ladies Classic. “I struggled with a lot of depression after it because as a 22-year-old you feel you’re not worth anything. You feel worthless. And no matter what you do, it’s not good enough. So to have all these people say that I’m not a good golfer, I’m not a good person, that I’m promiscuous or make these judgments about me that are not true, it’s really hard, just because I like to wear spandex on the golf course.”
Rising U.S. tennis star Madison Keys, currently ranked No. 8 in the world, recently partnered with FearlesslyGiRL, a leadership and anti-bullying organization dedicated to empowering young women.
Like Min, Keys felt that the only way to make a change would be to speak up.
“There’s been some tough losses and I come off of a court and turn on my phone and have a lot of nasty comments,” Keys, 21, told KWQC News in November. “Even sometimes after wins, people are mad that I beat their player.
“I felt like, if I kept staying quiet and not doing what I could to fix it, then I would be really disappointed in myself.”
Professional athletes rarely get a break from the abuse. Min received more of the same messages the very next day after she posted her about her experience on Instagram.
But while she continues to receive nasty online comments after nearly every match, she says that she has not thought about shutting down her social media accounts nor does she regret sharing her personal experience about something that goes beyond her abilities on court.
“My main intention was not to make it preachy,” Min said, “but mainly so I can hold myself accountable for my own actions. So that people know that, OK, maybe this is what she stands for. This is what I’m going to look for next time I see her.’”