AFL players take back control of social media amid deluge of abuse

AFL players are bombarded by negative, personal and vitriolic feedback on social media, but there’s an app that’s helping them wrestle back control of their online lives.

This year, Western Bulldogs players Tom Boyd and Travis Cloke have had to take time off due to mental illness; conditions not caused by social media backlash but their symptoms are exacerbated by the torrent of abuse they receive.

GWS veteran Brett Deledio who spent 12 years playing for Richmond – one of the most maligned clubs in the AFL – told Fairfax Media the kind of vicious abuse Cloke and Boyd would have read is something faced by many AFL players.

“It is something that you need to be very wary of [social media abuse],” Deledio said. “GWS youngsters haven’t experienced it because there is not a massive amount of focus on us, but guys like Steve Johnson, Ryan Griffen and myself who played in Victoria have had constant barrages of abuse after losing.

Players, including Joel Selwood, are given ideas for content to post.

“At Richmond they love you and they hate you, there is no doubt about that, and that’s not just Richmond that’s competition-wide. It is part and parcel of being a sportsperson, but I don’t agree with it. I am not sure what people get out of the abuse.

“I understand they’re frustrated, but take it out on your pillow or something else. What is the point? We’re disappointed just the same and it achieves nothing. You can see that recent news of blokes saying they’re really struggling with things, I have no doubt social media can add to that.”

To better control how he engages with his fans and how fans engage with him, Deledio has signed up to be a part of the 20Four app.

Users can download 20Four to their smartphone and follow a range of top Australian athletes across all sports, who will share behind-the-scenes content from their everyday lives.

Users cannot comment on the posts (critical in limiting abuse) but can “like” the posts.

AFL players signed to 20Four include Deledio, Alex Rance, Bernie Vince, Abbey Homes, Erin Phillips, Dyson Heppell, Joel Selwood and Max Gawn.

Other sportspeople include Billy Slater, Sam Thaiday (both rugby league), Anna Flanagan (hockey), Mack Horton (swimming), Genevieve LaCaze (athletics) and Will Genia (rugby union).

The athletes are paid a retainer (anywhere from five to six figures) and then post content through the app, most of it exclusive. Much of the content shows players off the field or in training, or in Deledio’s case, injury recovery.

20Four, with the help of the AFL Players Association, has been able to strike a deal with the AFL to ensure all money earned by the players through the app is considered legitimately outside the salary cap.

The only proviso for AFL players is that they cannot post content in their club colours – so any training at their clubs, club events and in stadium game-day content is not allowed.

Deledio said showing that he is a “normal person” is important in getting the public to respect athletes on social media.

“20Four is good because I can control what I am putting out there and show people what I want to put out. If I want to share how hard I train or showing me being a relaxed dad at home, there is only so much people want to see of you doing cross training and that sort of stuff

“People can sign up or they watch, but they either like or don’t like it. They can’t write comments and that sort of stuff and it is not really about feedback on my video it is more about seeing what I do day-to-day.

“I think once I get back into footy, my content will be even more interesting, if it hasn’t been already.”

On top of general behind the scenes content players post, 20Four’s team also give athletes ideas about what to post.

An example from a few weeks ago was when was West Coast’s Josh Kennedy posted a video to 20Four showing him “doorstop interviewing” teammate Luke Shuey.

Doorstop interviewing had been in the news because of a discussion on television about the practice between Nathan Buckley and Craig Hutchison.

In the future, there are hopes more players can be prompted into this type of reactive content, and there is also a push for brands to pay players to subtly advertise their products on their 20Four platform.

Embracing social media to benefit players is something Bulldogs’ coach Luke Beveridge said was a reason for not banning his team from online platforms.

“If there’s revenue to be made or a dollar to be made from social media presence I can understand why [players would be active on social media] … but if there wasn’t, I can’t,” Beveridge said.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan was clearer on player social media use, he told 3AW earlier this year: “I’m not sure why players go on there … it’s obviously a big part of the younger generation’s lives, they want to be on there. I think the easiest way home on that one is not to be on there.”

Former sport psychologist for the AFL Players Association Patsy Tremayne prefers players stayed off social media, but said if they didn’t, there were ways professionals could help them cope with the angry online feedback.

“Clubs need to make social media abuse coping strategies more of a priority,” Tremayne said. “They won’t learn good techniques unless they are taught them and they just treat it as part of life.

“It hurts the younger players in particular. There are mental health problems because of this and exacerbated from this, because they’re taking social media comments to heart.

“These people online don’t have the full story and they don’t know what’s going on and one can get extremely hurtful comments on social media from people who just jump at something based on their agenda. But it lacks context, I tell the players.”

Numerous AFL and club officials Fairfax Media spoke to acknowledged the ongoing challenge of social media abuse being aimed at players. Almost all agreed that banning social media use wasn’t the answer, but rather teaching players how to negotiate its negative aspects was the way to go.

And there are concerns about the way other organisations fuel fan abuse. One player manager told Fairfax Media one of his players had struggled to deal with abuse set off by social media memes made by betting companies.

One of the betting companies is an AFL sponsor and the memes centred around the player’s performance.