MANCHESTER, England — As one of soccer’s most outspoken commentators, Gary Neville is used to getting abuse from fans.
Over the space of five days in May, however, the attacks he received on social media were unlike anything he’d experienced before.
For Jill Scott, on the other hand, it was depressingly familiar.
“It’s highlighted a lot of what goes on, on social media, just because of your gender,” said retired England international Scott, who has now moved into a career as a TV analyst.
She and Neville swapped accounts on X, formerly known as Twitter, as part of an initiative by Heineken called The Social Swap intended to address gender bias in soccer on social media.
Scott and Neville posted their opinions on a range of issues in the sport but did so secretly on each other’s accounts.
Neville witnessed the prejudice Scott and other women have to contend with.
“They are not just general disagreements,” the former Manchester United defender told The Associated Press. “They are not saying ‘That’s a wrong opinion Jill.’ They are actually saying you shouldn’t be commenting on this because you are a woman.
“If someone said to me ‘Gary, I think you’re an absolute…’ I’m okay with that. They tell me they don’t like me. But if they were actually trying to suppress me because they believe I should not be allowed to speak about something, I think that’s more dangerous than offering an opinion of dislike.”
Scott and Neville spoke to The AP before the July 20-Aug. 20 Women’s World Cup was staged in Australia and New Zealand.
The tournament showcased the rapid growth of the women’s game and its worldwide popularity. But it was also overshadowed by Luis Rubiales, who kissed player Jenni Hermoso on the lips without her consent during the trophy ceremony after Spain was crowned champions. Rubiales finally resigned as Spain’s soccer federation president on Sunday.
In July, Women in Football — a network of professionals working in and around soccer — published a survey that said 82% of women in the sport had experienced discrimination in the workplace.
Scott says discrimination is commonplace on social media for women in soccer. Her account received five times more sexist responses than Neville’s during the experiment.
“It really can affect your day-to-day life,” she said, adding that she receives comments about her clothes and the way she looks. “I think also if you are a female, if you go on TV you have to look the best you can look. There are a lot of barriers that we have to deal with before we even put that microphone to our mouth.”
Scott, who was part of England’s European Championship-winning squad last year, had to get used to online abuse as a player as well. She said some of Sarina Wiegman’s players went off social media to avoid the distraction ahead of that tournament.
“It’s just sad that you have to remove yourself from a platform just because of keyboard warriors trying to put you down,” she said. “But you have to protect yourself.”
Online abuse in soccer in general has become such an issue that ahead of the men’s World Cup last year, the sport’s governing body, FIFA, launched a social media protection service to crack down on hate speech and discrimination.
As part of Heineken’s initiative, it has partnered with tech company Arwen to provide some fans with free access to its AI online moderation tool, which filters negative material from social media feeds.
As well as sexist comments, soccer players have been subjected to racial abuse online.
“In-stadium behavior has got a lot better in the Premier League,” Neville said. “Hooliganism we don’t see as much anymore. Families, men, women and children (are) watching more than ever before, but it’s transferred onto social, the abuse away from stadiums. So it’s not that the problem has gone away, it’s just been transferred.”
Despite the results of the swap, Scott believes attitudes are changing toward women in soccer. She also believes more must be done to support the women’s game.
“Sometimes as females we settle for that. It’s like we should always be grateful for things. That’s where we have to keep pushing all the time,” she said. “It’s not about women doing everything, I think it’s that equal opportunity piece. But we also need that equity in terms of support because we haven’t had that same journey or opportunities that the guys have had.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer