Tennis players face death threats and online abuse as soon as they step off the court. Tech companies are trying to stop it

As tennis returns to Flushing Meadows, New York, for both the Western & Southern Open and next week's US Open, CNN takes a look at the abuse tennis players receive on social media. Taylor Townsend and Benjamin Hassan talk to CNN World Sport's Christina Macfarlane about the online abuse they receive following tennis matches, which they perceive to be related to online gambling.

Posted: Aug 25, 2020 7:31 AM
Updated: Aug 25, 2020 7:31 AM

He would dread checking his phone -- and no wonder.

"They're calling me a f**king Muslim terrorist," tennis player Benjamin Hassan, 25, tells CNN Sport.

It's been a part of his life since he was 17 or 18 years old -- that he walks off the tennis court, looks at his phone, and is confronted by a barrage of abuse.

After every loss, Hassan estimates that he gets sent seven or eight vitriolic messages.

He recounts the sort of abuse he's become accustomed to receiving on social media over the course of his playing career.

"(That) my whole family should die; I will see you in your next tournament; I'm gonna kill you; f**k you, you die of cancer; I hope you die in an accident."

Experience has taught Hassan not to check his phone before games so as not to get distracted, but after matches he would spend time reporting and blocking users, as well as deleting insulting comments on Instagram.

Now ranked No. 354 in the world, he says the higher he climbs up the ATP rankings, the more insults he receives.

As a player, he's not alone.

American Taylor Townsend says it happens to tennis players across the board; what differs is the nature of the abuse each athlete receives.

"People attack all points," Townsend tells CNN Sport. "Anything that they can come for that they think is a weakness. Body image, my race, my skin color -- anything that they can try to attack you (with) or feel would be a sensitive subject."

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Townsend, who reached the fourth round of last year's US Open, says the abuse is worse at grand slams or high-profile tournaments, and, like Hassan, thinks it is nearly always motivated by betting.

"For someone who loves the game, I would never go out of my way to comment on someone's stuff because they lost. That's so stupid," Townsend adds.

"I love the game and I appreciate it from an athlete's point of view. So obviously it's something else attached to it, something where it makes someone that angry."

A number of tennis players have spoken out about online abuse in the past, including 2017 US open finalists Madison Keys and Kevin Anderson, who also finished runner-up at Wimbledon the following year.

The abuse of athletes has raised questions about whether social media companies are doing enough to stamp out this abuse.

But some companies involved in the sport have started to take action.

Earlier this month, sports data company Sportradar, which describes itself as a one-stop shop provider for betting and gaming operators, announced the launch of a service that identifies individuals behind anonymous "troll" or "burner" accounts directing abuse to athletes on social media.

By using Facebook and Instagram handles of various abusers, Sportradar can locate further details of the responsible individuals from open source and internal holdings. This is achieved by utilizing intelligence software to locate individuals via other social media platforms, as well as by manual name searches on social media.

According to sports data and tech company Playsight, which worked with players to compile the abuse for Sportradar, police in six locations have been contacted as a result of the initial investigation, although currently no legal action has been brought forward.

"Our intelligence investigation service can locate other social media accounts which belong to the same individual," Andreas Krannich, managing director of Integrity Services at Sportradar, tells CNN Sport.

"We aim to discover the user's real name, their location and, if possible, their telephone number."

Krannich accepts that betting is "part of the problem" when it comes to online abuse.

"There are always people who try to use their frustration to approach and threaten people because they have lost money," he says. "But as far as we know, based on our limited experience, it's only a small part of it."

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The service was trialled at the Exo-Tennis Series in Germany and the United States earlier this year. According to Playsight, the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) reported all the accounts that were investigated to the relevant social media companies.

"We inform the athlete about the background of the abuser ... then it's up to the athlete to decide what they want to do next," explains Krannich.

"We come up with recommendations ... Do we, for instance, want to inform the social media platform about this abuser, so that they are blocked from further activities, or maybe in extreme cases go one step further, connect the athlete or the sport organization directly with police and law enforcement to conduct a comprehensive report."

Townsend noticed the amount of abuse was higher than usual during the Exo-Tennis events, which were organised while the ATP and WTA Tours were on hold amid the coronavirus outbreak.

"I was shocked that it was that intense for something that didn't count (towards rankings)," she says.

"We were playing just to have fun, we were playing to make some money while we were out during quarantine ... it was just like, are you kidding me?"

In a statement to CNN, a spokesperson from Facebook, which also owns Instagram, said: "Racism is not tolerated on Instagram and Facebook. We invest heavily in people and technology to help us find and remove this content and we ban those who repeatedly break our rules.

"Last month, we introduced a new safety feature on Instagram that allows public figures to prevent people they don't know from sending them a message."

Facebook also told CNN that the company is investigating the accounts brought to its attention by Sportradar and Playsight's project.

It said 22.5 million pieces of hate speech content on Facebook were removed between April and June this year, over 94% of which was found and removed before it had been reported, and on Instagram, 3.3 million incidents of hate speech were removed in the same period, over 84% of which was found and removed before being reported.

Twitter also has Abusive Behavior and Hateful Conduct policies, the latter of which prohibits violence or threats towards people on the basis of race and ethnicity. Action is taken against accounts that break these rules.

In a statement sent to CNN, the ITF said: "We have not worked with Sportradar's social media service specifically, but effective measures to combat online social abuse will be welcomed by the ITF and the players."

The ATP and WTA Tours both work with the TIU and Theseus, a risk assessment and management company, to provide support for athletes if they encounter online harassment.

"Player safety is our number one priority," said a statement from the WTA sent to CNN.

"Players are instructed to notify the WTA if they have any concerns about comments, images, or messages posted on social media. The WTA has procedures in place to provide players appropriate support and guidance to manage these concerns.

"Theseus and the WTA work with social media platforms to shut down accounts when warranted for instances such as hacking or impersonation, and if applicable, local authorities are notified.

"Working with Theseus allows the WTA and the players to take the most appropriate action, while enabling WTA players to safely keep their social media accounts and use them to communicate and share exciting highlights, stories and news to their fans. The main objective is to reduce the impact intrusive, threatening or abusive behavior has on players."

For the players, there is reassurance in knowing steps are being taken to tackle online abuse.

"I just feel as though it's important for people to have this topic and have this conversation because it's not talked about a lot," says Townsend, who calls herself "a very avid block, delete and report" person when it comes to social media.

"This whole year, we've been really talking and diving into a lot of issues that make people extremely uncomfortable and I think this is one that is a part of sport that we do need to address."

Hassan says he has built up a resistance to the abuse over the years but does still worry for young players coming through who aren't prepared for the types of messages they might receive.

His advice to them is straightforward.

"Ignore it," he says. "Just put your phone away and focus on your match. And then after that, delete the messages."

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