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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Lycett

Babying and abuse: Where's the line in women's football?

Another game, another injury. Lia "Wally" Walti down due to a crunching tackle - directly into her ankle, with studs raised. In the stands, we fell silent. On the pitch, players were furious. Tears and disbelief on their faces.

The player was (eventually) shown a red card.

As fans, we were deflated, and struggled to muster the energy to keep chanting to the end - which we did, aiming to help the players through the remaining 40 minutes of the Everton vs. Arsenal game.

The players couldn't call in sick. They had a job to do. To see the game out, then get back on that coach and go home.

Fortunately, Lia's injury wasn't as bad as first feared.

Six weeks out, then - hopefully - on the plane to New Zealand for the World Cup.

Unfortunately, stories have focused on the visible online debate around Lia's social media post that same evening, and the treatment of the Everton player.

This was the headline, rather than the injury itself - or even the fact that the referee initially gave a yellow card for this reckless tackle, before upgrading to a red.

I'm adding to that narrative with this article. Yet, Lia's injury has thrown into the limelight an important debate around the nature of how we treat professional women football players.

Lia shared a post saying that football is a contact sport - and asked for "no hate or bad comments" towards the player responsible.

That same player put out a statement, expressing her regret, saying that she "meant no harm" to Lia - and turned off the ability for people to post comments on her Instagram post.

This prompted Everton Women to put out a Tweet, saying that online abuse is not acceptable - a very valid statement, in itself.

Twitter then picked up on this online exchange, and it quickly became a bigger story than the injury itself.

Now, to clarify - a difference in opinion or criticism of a performance doesn't automatically equate to abuse.

Football can spark intense emotions, at the best of times. Add an injury to that, and fans will have thoughts - particularly off the back of the hardship that the Arsenal team has endured this season.

The injuries have stacked up. The team has persevered throughout and are now stronger for it. However, it's unsurprising that this dangerous tackle led to a powder keg situation, where emotions ran high, for players and fans.

Add to this the fact that Lia Walti is regularly targeted. As Tim Stillman highlighted, the two iconic photos of Katie McCabe readying herself to fight your whole team were both the result of tackles on Wally.

People therefore have a lot of strong feelings about the tackle - and it's only natural for them to express them.

Many fans on Twitter were quick to say that they'd not seen much evidence of abuse.

They'd merely seen comments around the fact that it was a reckless and unnecessary tackle. There was some anger around downplaying the injury to focus on the feelings of the player that bestowed said injury - and a sense that the player was being "babied".

This attitude could almost be seen in the reaction from the referee. The initial yellow for such an aggressive tackle could easily reflect the narrative around women footballers being seen as too "nice" - as Jessy Parker Humphreys highlighted on this week's Counterpressed - and therefore needing to be defended.

Of course, we can't know what was said in DMs, and I'm fully aware that social media tends to be an echo chamber.

But, are we babying these football players when criticism is something all professionals are used to - particularly those at the top of their game?

This is all a running theme in women's football.

Sometimes, the category comments fall into is pretty clear cut. Take the experience of Georgia Stanway, back in 2021, when she was sent off for a foul in a game versus Manchester United.

"I made a mistake and hope everyone can accept my apology but I shouldn't have to log into social media and find myself subjected to all sorts of abusive messages," Stanway said in a statement on social media.

Players do see more than we think online.

Lia's undercover video recently shows that they likely see much more than we realise.

And it may not just be one post. It could be a torrent of sentiment - both good and bad. Social media is a very open space for a 360 performance review of a player.

In the recent international break, Australian Sam Kerr met Scottish Sam Kerr, and a video was shared, with comments criticising how Chelsea's Kerr acted.

Kerr herself responded to one of the criticisms.

The Matildas' social media admin put out a post saying "Continual harassment on our social media page of players, fans and people will result in removal and banning/blocking, as well as reporting.”

Similarly, in a well-timed campaign for the April 2023 international break, the Lionesses shared a post about the #RealScars that online abuse can leave - after Leah Williamson switched off her comments on an Instagram post following the team's first defeat in 30 games.

Raising awareness around online abuse is 100% valid. Abuse should not be tolerated. But comments criticising a reckless tackle are not necessarily abuse.

As fans, we're sensitive to the fact that female players have had to put up with a lot of abuse over the years - which may have led to over-protectiveness.

In September 2022, an open letter signed by both male and female footballers revealed that 23 out of 25 members of the England Euro 2022 team were subjected to online sexist abuse. That's a lot, and I believe that it makes people check themselves more at women's games.

There is a line for what's shouted at the players. You can normally tell when it's been crossed when there's a collective "Woooah" from those in the crowd in response. And that's where fans of the women's game tend to self-regulate.

In the more anonymous social media space, self-regulation becomes more difficult. It's a petri-dish of emotions and a space for exaggeration.

A single person commenting on a post soon becomes plural; it becomes "people" saying it. Others then leap to a player's defence, things get blown out of proportion quickly - and accusations of "babying" the players start to fly.

People seem to forget that these players were likely raised on a regular diet of football.

They know - especially now, with the growth of the game - what they're signing up for. These players are also professionals. They may be young, relatively speaking - sport, as a career, favours the young - but we shouldn't infantilise them. This is their job.

Fans may criticise the performance of a team and individual players, but those players already know how they played.

You don't get to that level without being self-critical.

They need to recognise what needs improving. Their errors would be highlighted by the multiple professionals surrounding them, to keep them at the peak of their game.

If they see posts criticising their performance, they'll likely be able to take it - they'll have similar observations in their official post-match feedback.

They also know when they've made a mistake. At 19, this player has been in the game long enough to know the risk that she was taking. She should therefore expect to be called out about it - as long as it's not a personal attack.

There's therefore a fine line between abuse and reasonable criticism.

How the players feel about comments is of course the most valid definition. If they feel that it's abuse, perhaps it is. But fans are allowed to have feelings too.

Georgia Stanway came close to defining the line when talking about the abuse that she's received in the past.

She said that she put out her statement because the messages she was receiving were about "things that aren't even associated with football."

That's a pretty good way to consider whether what you're saying is valid or a personal insult.

The players are professionals. The players are also human. Bearing both in mind when sharing your thoughts where they can see them will help us all self-regulate.

Maybe then, "babying" the players will become a thing of the past.

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