battling personal monsters: Noorena Shams (above) and Usama Mir (right)
battling personal monsters: Noorena Shams (above) and Usama Mir (right)

Online abuse is brutal. It can literally shatter anyone’s confidence. If not taken care of in the early stages, it can make one lose belief in one’s abilities. While a lot of coverage has been given to how online trolling affects a common individual, it has very rarely been discussed in the context of sports persons, i.e., how online trolling affects athletes’ performances.

“I have been in therapy for the past two years now,” says Noorena Shams, a 23-year-old squash player. “I was diagnosed with clinical depression back in 2017. Much of it had to do with the fact that I played squash. I got more attention than other girls because I hailed from a less developed region, because of which I would struggle and often froze inside the court.

“I remember my body would not move at all inside the court, because of which people would say that this girl does not know how to play squash. For four years straight, I would enter tournaments only to be knocked out in the first round itself,” adds Noorena.

The relentless trolling on social media would take its toll on her, resulting in her crying the whole day after the game. “I used to cry the following day. I would think that all my hard work has gone to waste because I wasn’t able to perform up to the mark. Apart from the hurdles that I faced as a woman athlete coming from an underprivileged area, I would face relentless trolling on the internet. There was so much going on in my head that people would use it all against me.”

The fact that Noorena is from a well-off family did not help her cause either. She would be trolled for all things that were beyond her control. “People would try to body shame me. Some would say that I didn’t deserve any success because I came from a privileged family and was spoon-fed all my life. They would basically ignore my struggles. In fact, they would use my struggles against me.

“When I did crowd-funding for my own education, I was vehemently bullied online. People said mean things to me. It was at that point in time when my coach pushed me to see a therapist, because he went through the same thing earlier in his life.

Online trolling and abuse can shatter a sports person’s pride and have a disastrous effect on his or her psyche as well as performance

“Things were so tough that inside the court — I would think that I have played the shot when, in reality, my body wouldn’t even move. It was because my mind would keep racing through the vitriol that I used to receive online.”

For Noorena, things went from bad to worse when she started to lose vision in one of her eyes due to trolling-induced stress. It did not stop there. When she pointed out the systematic discrimination in the sport, she was bullied and ‘taken to the cleaners’ by online trolls. “People also had a problem when I was presented the ‘Hamary Hero’ award during the Pakistan Super League last year, and when I pointed out how the training facilities for female athletes are not as good as those provided to their male counterparts.”

Screen grab of the Sarfraz Ahmed mall body-shaming incident
Screen grab of the Sarfraz Ahmed mall body-shaming incident

Noorena feels she was left to fight this battle on her own. “The sad part is that no one stood up for me. People called me and my family names. It is heartbreaking to see your family getting dragged through the mud for no reason.

“It takes me at least 20-30 minutes to get myself ready to play squash just because of the abuse and trolling I receive online. What people don’t realise is that I play squash for myself. I play that sport because it makes me happy. And as long as it’s keeping me happy, I’ll keep playing it, regardless of what they are saying about me.

“You would be surprised to know that many other squash players have started opening up to me. I won’t name names, but many of them are also going through the same stuff that I went through,” Noorena adds.

If you look at all sports, online abuse is increasing all across. You can see daily references of instances where there are examples of racist and personal abuse.

Unsurprisingly, she is not the only athlete who is abused vehemently online. Male athletes, cricketers in most cases, are also subjected to online trolling. According to Usama Mir, a Pakistani cricketer, he too has been at the receiving end of brutal online trolling and abuse on many occasions.

“Unfortunately, I have also received vile abuse online over my performances. Sometimes, I stop checking the comments and tweets. But mostly, I just laugh it off and tell myself that it’s just their opinion. Fans should also realise that resorting to personal abuse is the lowest that one can stoop to, and should avoid abusing the players and their families,” says Usama.

Usama believes that it’s “not cool” to involve the families of the players and people should refrain from sending hate towards them. “We also have families like you people [fans]. Nobody is stopping you from criticising our performances in the ground, but abusing our families hurts us. And fans should avoid doing it.

“Sometimes, the abuse gets so personal that it’s hard to control oneself from lashing out. But, then we have to control ourselves because, if we replied to the trolls and abusers, there wouldn’t be much of a difference between them and us,” he adds.

However, as far as online trolling getting the better of him in the ground is concerned, he believes that top players and athletes do take criticism positively. “They don’t get disheartened by it. You have got the examples of the likes of Babar Azam and Virat Kohli. They also struggled in the earlier stages of their career and got bullied online for their failures. But they never let the trolls get the better of them.”

To better understand the penetration that online abuse has made in sports, Eos also spoke to a top professional sports medical consultant in the UK who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his own fears of being heckled by trolls online. According to him, if you look at all sports, online abuse is increasing all across. You can see daily references of instances where there are examples of racist and personal abuse.

“I’ve myself seen examples of such abuse for athletes I’ve worked with and know,” he says. “One of the most upsetting examples that I remember was when Sarfraz Ahmed was abused in a mall in the UK while he was with his little son. And it was all so that the abuser could record and get more likes on his own social media. If Sarfraz had reacted then, he would have suffered even more abuse and criticism,” says the consultant.

He makes a valid point. The athletes are expected to act in accordance with the code of conduct at all times, forgetting the fact that they too are humans, that they too can become emotionally distraught if subjected to vile abuse and online trolling. In Sarfraz’s case, although it wasn’t direct online abuse, the abuser uploaded the video of himself abusing Sarfraz in front of his kid, hoping to get traction on his profile.

When all three were asked where they draw the line between abuse and harmless trolling, they unanimously agreed that most sensible people know that you shouldn’t post anything that you wouldn’t say directly to the person involved if you were in front of them, with the understanding that you’d face any potential consequences as a result.

The writer tweets @HumayounAK

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 27th, 2021

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