What have we learned from the Tayla Harris controversy?

Carlton AFLW star Tayla Harris didn't know it at the time, but when she lined up for a goal against the Western Bulldogs in March 2019 she was about to be thrust front and centre into a national debate around online trolling and sexism in sport.

After the now-iconic photo of Tayla in full flight was posted by Seven Network on social media and received a barrage of offensive comments, Harris stated that the comments amounted to sexual abuse, and labeled the trolls "animals".

Seven then removed the photo, prompting a backlash from other sports stars who believed the network took the easy option rather than showing leadership.

The position Tayla was photographed in is nothing new in AFL photography, with male players regularly captured at the same moment, making Tayla's strong stance and message to online trolls even more powerful.

Here are five things we’ve learned in the wake of the Tayla Harris story.

Create a positive platform from a negative experience

Tayla's story has received media coverage around the world and made her a household name in Australia.

Not only has she exposed the sexism still experienced by female sports stars in 2019, but she has also sparked a broader discussion about the severity and impact of online abuse.

Speaking on Melbourne radio Tayla said many of those who trolled her had profile pics with their daughters and other female family members: "If these people are saying something like this to someone they don't know on a public platform, what are they saying behind closed doors and what are they doing?"

Tayla expressed concerns that the actions of trolls could lead to domestic violence and abuse, and called to the AFL, the police, and social media networks to do more to stamp it out.

While what Tayla faced is awful, she has used the national platform she's been given to lead real change in women's sports and in society more broadly.

Media networks should not give in to trolls

When vile comments flooded the thread of 7AFL’s post, the network opted to delete the photo instead of monitoring the comments and banning offenders. Taking the easy option sends the wrong message to trolls, giving the impression that there are no consequences for offensive behaviour online.

The decision to delete the post was condemned by many within the sport, with stars from both AFL and AFLW voicing their opinions and reposting the image.

This experience should motivate all social media networks to review their social media management procedures and take a leadership position against offensive online behaviour.

Iconic moments drive change

The Tayla Harris story has also elevated the profile of the AFLW and will go down in history as a symbol of the league and of women's sport generally. Just as the photo of Nicky Winmar lifting his guernsey and pointed to his chest during a game in 1993 to show he was proud to be Indigenous, the photo of Tayla Harris is set to become an icon of women’s sport and gender equality.

Winmar’s pose was in response to racial abuse he received during a game and is recognised as a key driver behind the movement against racism in sport at the time. The image of Harris will likewise go down in history as a catalyst for change.

The modern athlete needs round the clock resilience

Professional athletes have always had to be resilient on the field, dealing with the pressure of match day, abusive opposition fans, and the media. Tayla's story shows us that it doesn't end there for the modern athlete. Unlike the era before social media, athletes can now face abuse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from anonymous people online. This type of bullying can have a devastating impact on mental health, and clubs are now putting in place strategies and support to build resilience and help athletes cope. Some athletes have also taken the step to remove themselves from social media.

Athletes are leaders on the field, but their experiences can inspire and drive change in businesses, clubs, and in society more broadly as well.

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