The treatment of Chelsea captain Karen Carney at the hands of Instagram trolls has been condemned by the club and the Football Association, while calling into question the policing of social media and the effect it can potentially have on players and the young fans the sport is trying to encourage.
After a string of obscene and misogynist threats were made against Carney following the Blues’ 1-0 Champions League victory against Fiorentina at Kingsmeadow, social media is again in the dock.
One Instagram message to the 31-year-old, who was entrusted with the skipper’s armband by manager Emma Hayes last month, wished her life-threatening illnesses, while others – infantile and bovine in their wording – referred to rape and death.
It follows a string of ugly posts made against Chelsea striker Drew Spence following the Blues’ game against Arsenal last weekend.
Kaz herself maintained a professional dignity. The player, winner of 133 international caps and a key part of England Women’s manager Phil Neville’s squad, despairingly wrote: “Wow! Some people!”
Now the hunt is on for the trolls who believe they can hide behind the anonymity of social media to make the kind of threats which would see them slung out of football grounds if they were heard shouting them, and which the courts would punish severely were such remarks to be made openly.
The FA wants the police to trace and prosecute the perpetrators, while Neville described the words used by trolls as “absolutely disgraceful”, and challenged Instagram with the demand: “Are you going to do something about it?”
While football players, male and female, are subjected to regular sniping on social media, it is the obscene threats of rape to women footballers that is causing the most concern, undermining the ‘family’ appeal of women’s sport.
Chelsea have backed their captain, who received the first abusive messages during the Fiorentina match… a game in which Carney scored the only goal, from the penalty spot, after eight minutes. The club said the abuse was “abhorrent and totally unacceptable”.
For the FA, the latest example of glib, ugly abuse simply brings to a head a growing problem in the game. While all clubs and individual players recognise that their younger fan base communicate and keep in touch via social media, the apparent inability of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to properly protect people from vile comments poses a serious dilemma.
“The abuse of players on social networking sites is a serious concern and we call on the police and social media organisations to do everything they can to help tackle this growing problem,” said the FA. “We provide all our senior England players with training, guidance and support on the use of social media and treat our duty of care in this regard with the utmost importance.”
In response, Instagram said the account from which the messages had been sent had been removed as the company “does not tolerate threatening or abusive behaviour”.
It added: “We encourage anyone who sees content of this kind to report it via our in-app tools, and our global team work 24/7 to review and remove anything that violates our community guidelines.”
In May, Women in Football’s sexism abuse report for the 2017-18 season revealed it had witnessed an increase of almost 400% in the number of sexual harassment and discrimination incidents it was handling compared to the 2016/17 campaign, while attacks on social media had risen by nearly 300%.
The Met Police are still waiting to receive an official complaint about the incident (although why they can’t instigate an investigation without one is mystifying), but Women in Football believes that use of “toxic language and threats” are now commonplace in women’s sport, with Carney’s case simply emblematic of an increasing trend.
“No one should be targeted for abuse because of their gender, or subjected to gender-based abusive language,” said the group. “Time and again Women in Football sees evidence of women being on the receiving end of this kind of toxic language or threat. We wholly condemn it and call on social media platforms, media outlets and clubs to act in ensuring the perpetrators face the consequences of their actions.”
Kaz Carney spoke to The Good Life after Wednesday night’s European first-leg victory. “The clean sheet is really, really important. We stuck together and that performance tonight was magnificent,” she said. “They are unbelievable this group, and you have to give them a lot of credit for them.”
On her coolly taken pen, Carney said she had been “on the list” to take spot-kicks. “I’ll step up; it’s my role, my responsibility and I just go through the processes. Thankfully it went in!”
She confirmed that there had been a brief discussion on the pitch with her colleagues on the field before she took on the role of kick taker. The penalty came early after Erin Cuthbert had crossed from the right and the ball struck Sephanie Breitner on the hand.
Looking ahead to the league match against second-placed Birmingham at the weekend, Carney said: “They’re flying! The manager’s magnificent and the players are very, very good. They play innovative, creative football, but the pressure is probably more on them.”
Carney refuses to write off Chelsea’s chances of retaining the league title, but accepts that it is no longer in Chelsea’s hands.
Drew Spence was also targeted by threats, abuse and vile messages on social media following the Gunners’ surprise 5-0 defeat of Chelsea at Kingsmeadow, a game in which Kim Little fractured her leg in a robust tackle by Spence – an incident which earned Spence a yellow card. Little hobbled off, and will not play again until early 2019.
Spence, by common consensus, is not a ‘dirty’ player. The fact that she was presented with a framed shirt for 150 Blues appearances before the Arsenal game testifies to her loyalty, long service and sporting outlook. The challenge from behind on Little, in which the midfielder’s legs folded up beneath her as she fell, may have been born out of frustration at the way the game was slipping away from Chelsea, but was not malicious or intended to harm.
However, it’s the latest example of vile social media hatred against Kaz Carney, delivered from behind the convenient cloak of anonymity, is overshadowing women’s football at a time when the sport is still trying to establish itself as a national and international force in an arena dominated by the financial clout of the men’s game.