Inside the evolving culture of death threats in the AFL

AFL players have been stalked and trolled since the 1960s, when death threats were sent through the mail in the form of cut-out letters or came via phone calls. Now, with technology evolving, perpetrators operate online and hide behind fake names and photos, with Twitter handles that look more like credit card numbers than usernames. ESPN explores the world of death threats in football and the AFL's sophisticated war on trolls.

On a wet Friday night in August, the Giants were leading Essendon by four points with 1:32 left on the clock at Metricon Stadium. The Giants had eroded a 22-point halftime deficit and had momentum. Play had logjammed in the Giants' goalsquare when Bombers midfielder Dylan Shiel kicked a 25-metre chaos ball out of the last line of defence. Callan Ward, who had 14 touches, got to the ball first and bent over. His head made contact with Shaun McKernan's hip, and he landed on the ground, holding his head. A free kick was given to Ward for high contact. He kicked truly from 50 metres out. It proved to be a decisive goal. The Giants won the game 59-55.

Almost on cue, social media platforms lit up. Outrage ensued. Fans thought Ward had staged and embellished contact that wasn't there. That night, as has become the new norm, Ward copped the brunt of the venom. "Don't f---en celebrate that you cheating bastards. Umpires got you over the line and Callan Ward is a cheat. F--- you," one fan wrote. "Callan Ward is a f---ing cheat," wrote another. One user wished for Ward to rupture his anterior cruciate ligament again.

An experienced veteran and one who was voted most courageous player in the league by his peers in 2018, Ward probably took this feedback in stride. But from the time he left the changerooms at Metricon Stadium until his interview with 3AW the next day, the messages from disgruntled fans morphed into death threats targeting him and his young family.

"I guess with what has happened, the most disappointing thing is I have a lot of Essendon supporters and a lot of AFL supporters commenting on photos of Romeo, my baby," Ward said at the time. "I think it just has to stop because if you have been getting death threats like I have been getting, some players couldn't handle that."

Two weeks later, Richmond defender Dylan Grimes went through the same vitriolic attack, including suggestions of suicide, after a controversial free kick was paid against Essendon during the Dreamtime clash in Darwin. One user wrote: "U are the biggest flop in the AFL. Grow a f---ing set of nuts." After the game, Grimes' social media accounts attracted vile messages that soon evolved into unequivocal death threats.

"The severity and pointed nature of these threats went way beyond what I would call normal post-game banter with this individual, so much so that we were concerned for the safety of my family back home in Victoria," Grimes later said in a statement.

Over the past few years, scenes such as the two above have played out countless times for men and women in the AFL and AFLW. Some cases we learn about when a player comes forward, but a majority of players try to ignore the abuse or brush it off as a joke. But it seems that more players today are prepared to shine light on what's becoming a serious issue for the AFL.

Brisbane's Mitch Robinson and the Bulldogs' Josh Bruce were vocal about the online abuse they receive, saying that they get up to 30 putrid messages about failed bets from strangers each week. North Melbourne's Aaron Hall had noxious messages directed at his wife and young child. Younger players such as Fremantle's Caleb Serong and Port Adelaide's Zak Butters aren't spared; one was referred to as a "slave," and the other had comments aimed at his parents. Veterans Eddie Betts, Taylor Walker and Nick Vlastuin all have scornful examples to share, and last year, AFLW star Tayla Harris had to deal with trolls who fired off misogynistic and repugnant comments after she posted on social media a photo of herself kicking for goal.

Dr. Lisa Warren, clinical and forensic psychologist at Code Black Threat Management, says sending death threats in cloak-and-dagger increases their impact.

"When someone says, 'I'm going to kill you,' what they do is create a sense of uncertainty: What's going to happen next? Is this going to happen? When's it going to happen? And that uncertainty can be really traumatic," she told ESPN. "What we know about online stalking, as an example: The trauma that is created in the person who is being targeted is about as impactful as people who have been serving in war."

Trolling is not new, but for most AFL players, extreme behaviour from strangers -- something Dr. Warren refers to as "severe psychological violence" -- has progressed into a daily occurrence. The unacceptable behaviour is bigger than the AFL: More than 6.5 million Australians have experienced online harassment, including death threats, hate, racism and misogyny. Other professional sporting organisations, such as the English Premier League and the NBA, also deal with vexed fans whose venom can go far beyond cheap shots, zingers and banter. Experts ESPN spoke to for this story said the COVID-19 pandemic has supercharged the vitriol and angst on the internet.

"We think ... threatening your life means that somebody has at least thought about ending your life. So it's quite possible that your life is at risk," Warren said. "And it's not just in a moment. It is that prolonged sense of vulnerability and exposure that is so damaging."

Sport psychologist Tracey Veivers, who has spent 15 years working inside footy clubs, including at Brisbane, believes that the AFL work environment for players and staff has changed through the spectrum of exposure that players now experience online, which can affect well-being, cloud decision-making and even force players to retire. Look at what happened to former Sydney champion Adam Goodes -- a two-time Brownlow medallist and one of the best to ever lace up the boots -- who was effectively booed out of the game in 2015.

"There's no consequential thinking on the part of the perpetrator because there are no consequences. So perpetrators are not learning. They're not realising consequences, nor do they care because they think they can remain anonymous," Veivers told ESPN. "When trolls send messages to them [players], they are invading their world. It feels very personal, very intimate. That can affect how the athlete processes what is said."

Veivers has seen firsthand what death threats and online abuse can do to a player physically. She says that once a player reads a message, he or she can go into shock. The body goes into fight-or-flight mode as stress hormones are released, which can bring shaking, nerves and nausea. What happens next is up to the individual. Tell a friend. Tell the club. Tell the manager. Some choose to not tell anyone, which Veivers says is a coping mechanism in which they "shelve" the threat in a bid to ignore it so that it eventually goes away.

"But it doesn't mean they've forgotten about it," she said. "And this is the issue."

When Jason Akermanis was at the Western Bulldogs during the twilight of his career as a 33-year-old goal sneak, he was also publishing a weekly News Limited column taking aim at AFL issues. The outspoken former footballer said his ideas sometimes invited hate and criticism from sports fans.

Halfway through the 2010 season, one column Akermanis wrote got him the sack from the Western Bulldogs after a handful of teammates took issue with it. The next morning, he woke up and had breakfast with his wife, Megan Legge, and daughters. Then the phone rang. It was Phil Gardner, the Herald Sun's editor-in-chief. He told Akermanis: "We've got a problem."

Akermanis hopped on his motorbike and rode to Southbank to meet with Gardner. It was there that Akermanis was told that a man had left a voice message targeting him and his family, saying: "I can't wait for Jason and his whole family to be in the car so I can shoot them." Gardner told Akermanis that he wasn't sure if the perpetrator was watching him.

"There was some part of me that was slightly concerned for my safety. That was the risk I ran having an opinion that was different and uncomfortable for some people," the 43-year-old told ESPN.

That same year, Akermanis also had two written threats directed at him that were sent to the club. In those letters, he said, "They said they would do some damage to me." After those experiences -- and years of living a public life as an AFL celebrity -- Akermanis said he started to make his life much more private.

"It did change my game plan a lot," he said. "I spent seven of 10 years after football in places like Albury just to hide and let all the hate and anger just dissipate out of people's opinion of me."

A 2014 report from Reuters columnist Jack Shafer called this "the golden age of death threats."

"When discussing death threats," Shafer wrote, "we must also never forget context and legal jurisdiction. If somebody living in a nursing home 3,000 miles away from me threatens to end my life with a poisoned samurai sword because he dislikes one of my columns, I might flinch. But if he has no realistic chance of following through, he'll probably not suffer for his actions."

Australian criminal laws are still trying to catch up to nimble prosecution and heavy penalties, but some countries have remedies that can act as deterrents for would-be trolls. New Zealand's Harmful Digital Communications Act (2015) enables much greater accountability online. The act makes it "illegal to send messages and post material online that deliberately cause a victim serious emotional distress." Perpetrators can face up to two years in jail, a $50,000 fine for individuals and/or a $200,000 fine for companies. The act also states that "inciting someone to commit suicide is illegal, regardless of whether or not the victim attempts to take their own life."

In the UK, laws focus on social media firms that are now legally required to protect users and face heavy fines if they fail, according to the Online Harms White Paper released in 2019.

Superintendent Steve White of the Victoria Police State Intelligence Division told ESPN in a statement that they treat all cases -- professional athletes or otherwise -- extremely seriously and that perpetrators can be charged with a number of offences, including stalking or using a telecommunications device to menace, and jailed for up to three years.

Crime Statistics Agency couldn't provide specific data to reflect if there has been a rise in online harassment related to death threats, but there are two AFL matters currently before the court. One is the Dylan Grimes case, and the other concerns an AFL umpire. Outside of football, Victoria Police charged a 37-year-old man with stalking 11 women and leaving explicit voice messages using information he gathered from social media profiles, targeting victims in their teens and 20s.

"People who would never commit an armed robbery or a burglary seem to believe that online threats are not comparable. However, that's a misconception, and those threats can have a comparable, lasting impact on victims," White told ESPN. "More than anything, people need to understand that online behaviour is 'real life,' and there are real consequences to their actions, which includes criminal charges."

In the case of Callan Ward, Greater Western Sydney boss David Matthews told News Limited that the club would do whatever necessary to identify the individuals and take action.

"It's obviously up to individuals as to how they want to proceed with various matters," he said. "If you're going to make a death threat, then I think it should be treated in a criminal way."

For Grimes, the alleged perpetrator, a 39-year-old Frankston man, was arrested and charged with stalking, using a telecommunications device to menace and threatening to commit a sexual offence. But this route isn't swift. Grimes will have to wait until May 2021 to get his day in court, and there's a chance that he won't get the conviction he wants.

Even so, Richmond CEO Brendon Gale said in a statement on the club's website in August that Grimes' willingness to call out this behaviour was an important reminder for everyone. "No one should have to tolerate this, and as an AFL industry, we need to continue to unite, educate, call-out and stamp out this ugly, abusive behaviour," he said.

For this story, ESPN reached out to a dozen players, some of whom were the targets of death threats or constant abuse this year and in previous years. Most of them at some point called out the act publicly but chose to remain silent when asked to talk about it for this story.

You can see why: AFL players are in a cumbersome spot. If they choose to call out their trolls, they risk experiencing the stigma around the internet's complain culture. There's also potential for repeat abuse and further anxiety if the messaging is called out. Finally, because there is no silver bullet in prosecuting trolls and because of the reactive approach taken by social media platforms, AFL players would be forgiven for thinking: What's the point of coming forward? However, experts believe that calling out trolls in a one-in-all-in approach is what is needed to drown them out.

The AFL Players Association (AFLPA) has been part of discussions with the World Players Association about how to combat and manage trolling and abuse, which has led them to take action and call out racist and poor behaviour online that stemmed from the introduction of the AFL Indigenous All-Stars Camp. Current and former players also have access to 250 qualified psychologists and psychiatrists, which helps players bounce back from negative interactions online, as well as basic online safety training.

Paul Marsh, the CEO of AFLPA, has opted to take an active role in calling out hateful commentary as it happens, partly to support the implicated players and partly to educate football fans that hateful messaging is not an acceptable part of AFL discourse. When Grimes was targeted in Round 13, Marsh took to Twitter and wrote: "We love the passion fans have for the game, but a serious line is crossed when aggressive messages are sent to players. There's no excuse to threaten or abuse someone." When Ward also copped threats, Marsh responded: "The violent threats sent to Callan via social media are disgraceful and the words of cowards."

"While we love the passion of fans, some need to remember that it's a game. Violent threats, racial vilification and abuse sent to AFL players, or any member of society, via social media is unacceptable," Marsh said in a statement to ESPN. "It's encouraging that players are feeling more comfortable to raise or take serious action against this behaviour and the AFLPA will continue to call it out on their behalf."

It's too precarious to say that the AFL should be doing more to protect its players from vitriolic behaviour online because right now, there is no panacea. In her role as executive general manager of inclusion and social policy at the AFL, Tanya Hosch tackles the complexities of the game, including complaints in relation to AFL officials, inappropriate behaviour and all forms of discrimination. She also works with clubs directly to give them the intelligence needed around best digital practices and potential sanctions. She says that aside from cancelling the AFL memberships of perpetrators, the clubs' role is somewhat restricted.

"Formally, we have no jurisdiction. We don't have any powers as a sporting code to do much more than elevate it and report it," she told ESPN. "The players who are targeted definitely are made aware of their options if they want to report it to the police. But that often doesn't happen because the outcome there is not necessarily going to get a result."

Part of Hosch's role is to grow relationships with Twitter and Facebook, to seek their help in tracking down fake accounts set up for the purpose of vilification. Hosch said she keeps tabs on what's happening in other parts of the world, including with the NBA and EPL, exploring programs such as Kick It Out, an organisation set up to make it easier to lodge complaints by phone. But as much as one can hope that these initiatives will inch sporting codes closer to curbing death threats online, Hosch points out that even new platforms give trolls fresh opportunities to fire off abhorrent social posts.

"There's no silver bullets, but the way you call it out is important. Try to avoid giving the sledge oxygen. It's acknowledged and wrong, but it's about celebrating the individual," Hosch said. "We really do have to be vigilant across the board in terms of dealing with these issues."

Twitter didn't respond to an interview request. Facebook provided a statement that included a company spokesperson saying, "We do not allow death threats, hate speech or bullying and harassment on Facebook and Instagram, and we'll remove this content as soon as we become aware of it. We also work with law enforcement if we believe there is a credible risk of physical harm."

In 2019, Facebook vowed to spend USD$3.7 billion on security and safety and have 15,000 people reviewing more than two million pieces of content per day. If there are repeated violations of Facebook's Community Standards, accounts may be shut down.

Tim Kendall, a Silicon Valley insider and former Facebook employee who was responsible for monetizing Facebook, was interviewed by Tom Steinfort on "60 Minutes" in October. He said that acts such as cyberbullying and trolling drive engagement, which leads to more revenue from advertisers. "They push right up until the point of inciting violence, and then they take it down. But hate speech is totally fine," Kendall told "60 Minutes."

Steinfort's investigation looked at the brutal reality of trying to prosecute online trolls and the traumatic impact of being the focal point of targeted online smear campaigns. NRL coach Anthony Seibold quit his job at the Broncos after an ongoing hostile campaign that targeted his private life with false rumours of cocaine use and affairs with his players' partners. One message even took aim at his daughter with allegations of self-harming. Even after hiring a cybercrime investigator and tracking down the names of several NRL identities under the Australian Criminal Law Act, Seibold still couldn't prosecute.

The simplest thing for anyone struggling with online tirades to do would be to quit social media altogether. That's easier said than done. Players use social media to get personal messages to their fans. They use it to grow their brands and attract sponsors. Players also depend on friends who support them online. Social media has become an essential tool, and as a society, we've become entangled with the internet. Plus, there's potentially never a moment when AFL players aren't near their phones.

In December 2019, the AFL approached Australia's eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, after seeing an increase in racism and misogyny online. The AFL wanted her team to talk to fans about the damage that targeted abuse can have on players, teams and the game. She inducted the AFLW rookies starting in 2021. During this process, which she called "very powerful," she got to listen to the players' experiences with online threats, and she heard from leaders who aren't being targeted, calling it out and asking people to stop.

"Social media really does surface the reality of the human condition. If you talk to Eddie Betts or Adam Goodes, Dylan Grimes, Callan Ward -- all of these players that have experienced these death threats -- they experience racism on a daily basis, and they experience it from the stands as well," she told ESPN. "It's not something that fans necessarily see in full force or the full extent that they should. The prejudice and racism in society is playing out in the context of the game."

Inman Grant, who spent 17 years at Microsoft and has worked on social issues, safety and technology at Twitter and Adobe, says the Australian agency is the only organisation in the world that regulates social media sites for a range of online harms. Her investigative team has the arduous task of looking at abuse trends and emerging technologies and proactively trying to shift the responsibility to enforce policies back to the platforms themselves.

"I've lived 'The Social Dilemma' a couple of times. These tech companies have the intellectual capabilities, financial resources, creating the most advanced technologies in the world, but they're just not making safety a priority," she said. "What I found over time [is] almost on a daily basis, a platform of free expressions was leading to voices of minorities being suppressed through targeted online harassment."

From March to September, Inman Grant said there was a surge of abuse, with a 49% increase in adult cyber abuse, a 32% increase in youth- based cyberbullying, a 123% increase in illegal and harmful content and a more than 172% increase in image-based abuse.

During the Indigenous round -- considered to be the worst event in terms of online trolling during the AFL year -- Inman Grant and her team watched and tracked 75 handles of Indigenous AFL players. That's when "the haters come out," she said. "It shouldn't take that. It shouldn't be an everyday thing."

There is fresh hope that new, flexible legal powers are coming that will be able to find and prosecute perpetrators expeditiously. But Inman Grant says that can also be expensive. She believes that this issue won't be solved through arrests, either, because prosecution is slow. Rather, a collective mob approach from league governing bodies, fans, players, tech companies and law enforcement to report bad behaviour and provide education for fans on why trolling and death threats are unacceptable is more realistic.

"AFL players aren't superhuman. We've seen some cheap shots taken recently at spouses and children of these players. It sucks the life out of these players," she said. "This really shouldn't be part of the deal. But it is now. We need to have a zero-tolerance policy. We all need to step up."