David Haye exclusive: British boxing legend recounts story of horrific social media abuse

  • Kobe Tong
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"Whether you’ve got £1 million in the bank or £1 million overdrawn, the pain is the same."

In the famous square circle, dodging punches and landing your own is the name of the game, but now David Haye has swapped ducking leather-clad blows for taking on the digital jabs of the internet world.

As part of BT Sport's pioneering 'Draw The Line' initiative, the 'Hayemaker' is spearheading the fight against social media abuse, which has been exposed for its utter vileness and baseness in devastating new findings in collaboration with YouGov.

Draw The Line

With the study finding that five million Brits have experienced online abuse in the last 12 months and that half of the population have at least witnessed it, the viral nature of malevolence feels as abundant as the smart phones from which they're typed.

And Haye is going toe-to-toe with the online culture of maltreatment that has bred such alarming statistics, speaking with great passion in the face of those who hit 'post' without either thinking or empathising.

"People need to disconnect it," Haye told me over Zoom. "So don’t say anything to somebody else online that you wouldn’t want someone to say to your mother, to your friends or to your kids. 

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"But they don’t look at it that way. The way they’re speaking to these sports stars or celebrities, they wouldn’t want someone speaking to their child that way.

"People don’t want their friends, families or colleagues to see a lot of the stuff they say, so they - in their little basements - set up a little private account and then start spewing hate."

Haye's story of online abuse

Haye will openly admit to having received countless abusive messages across his career, often from anonymous accounts, but there are instances where the Brit has stared into the eyes - virtually, at least - of the abuser themselves.

When I asked Haye whether he would ever sit down and chat with somebody who had sent him online abuse, the London-born fighter recalled one particular example: "I had a guy message me a really horrendous message.

"It was to the point where I was like: 'who is this guy?' And I looked at this guy's page and it was actually his name. He actually had his real name.

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"So, I just sent him a message back saying something along the lines of: 'hey man,' I went completely the other way. 'I think it's a bit harsh the way you spoke to me about that, about my mother, she's a great person, blah, blah, blah. I wish you nothing but luck in your life.'

"And at the end of it, I said: 'I'm pretty sure your mother would be really disappointed with you if she actually read this message.'

"And he sent me a message back saying: 'I'm so sorry, I can't believe I said those things, my mum's actually in hospital at the moment. I'm super stressed.' And he then poured out his heart that he's in a really bad place.

"He didn't realise what he was doing was trying to take it off his chest and trying to give it to someone else and it was only when I was super nice back to him that he opened up and apologised, sincerely apologised."

It appears to be a hideous, but no less disheartening, mental health cycle where those struggling with their own negative thoughts are hurling that dissatisfaction upon others.

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Dangers of social media anonymity

And when it proves so doubtful that many of these internet trolls would project such abuse to the same athletes or individual in person, it really shines a light on the dangers that social media's anonymity brings.

Interestingly, Haye noted how he received the least abuse on LinkedIn where accounts are so often tethered to the companies and colleagues through which its users earn a living, unconcealed by nameless avatars.

And it's that arterial connection to the non-digital world that eliminates so many of the online abusers who ricochet and rebound their nastiness from behind pixelated veils, lounging in the sheer lack of consequences.

As a result, the calls for stricter regulations upon the creation of social media accounts - having to use forms of identification, for example - are growing in strength and it's a hill that Haye is willing to die on.

The 40-year-old proposed: "I think a good way to combat this is if these social media platforms somehow implement a way to stop people being able to do any posts on another’s platform if their name isn’t connected to it. 

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"Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s from an anonymous source or an anonymous name where it isn’t a real person’s name because if you work for a big corporation, one thing they would not stand for is one of their employees saying something racist as that’s a direct connection to their business.

"I think having accountability for things that you say on your social media will minimise significantly the amount of abuse that’s out there."

One can only hope that if social media companies clamp down accordingly that - as Haye said himself - trolls think twice about pulling the trigger on emetic comments that could seriously damage the mental health of those in its crosshair.

'The pain is the same'

Besides, whether or not you have a fancy verification tick next to your name or just a handful of followers, we're all vulnerable to having our feelings hurt by way of, well, being human.

However, with YouGov finding that one in seven people think that public figures should simply expect online abuse, it's clear that the ground is fertile for online abusers feeling entitled to take aim at those with large followings.

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It's a battlefield upon which Haye fights on the front line, championing the adage that mental health is indiscriminate to wealth in the way a broken arm or physical illness might be, calling for trolls to see the human and not the celebrity.

Haye continued: "Whether it’s boxing, whether it’s music, whether it’s acting, whatever it is, if that person has a fanbase, for some weird reason, it feels like these trolls feel in their heart that they have a right to say horrible, disrespectful, racist, homophobic things to people because they may see them earning £50,000-a-week.

"So, they’re then thinking: ‘if you’re earning £50,000-a-week, you can take some abuse for that £50,000-a-week.’ There’s no amount of money that deserves people to change your energy by receiving such disrespectful hate.

"We all seem to justify their actions with: ‘oh, he drives around in a Lamborghini, he can take some stick, can’t he?’ It doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got in the bank, a horrible comment to someone is a horrible comment to someone."

Time to take a stand

The fact of the matter is this: mental health isn't any more kind or caring if you have a Ferrari sat on your drive, play a professional sport or mow your two-acre lawn every morning. It doesn't operate in bank balances, salaries or bonuses. 

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Does affluence offer greater access to avenues of counselling and healthcare? I don't doubt it, but what a sorry situation we find ourselves in where social media being saturated with hate and vitriol has become such an unassailable fact.

We are perhaps all guilty of being bystanders to online abuse over the years, such is the collective numbness to vileness being bounded about, but what matters is that growing swells of people and companies are now taking a stand.

It's no longer good enough to simply not be an online abuser yourself; it's time we took action - drew the line, if you were - to ensure that platforms championing 'social' interactions aren't, in fact, accommodating hateful ones.

BT’s #DrawTheLine campaign will see BT Sport highlight the issue of online abuse and introduce an anti-online abuse policy, deleting, blocking or reporting hate and abuse on its channels. For more information visit bt.com/drawtheline

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