Muscles aching after an afternoon gym session, Tayla Harris is spending the early evening hanging laundry in the backyard of her Melbourne home. “Pretty standard procedure,” says the athlete who has experienced a far from ordinary 12 months.
Until last March, Harris was admired by many yet not widely recognized. As a young player in the women’s Australian Football League (AFLW), a summer sport that is an Australian obsession, her focus had been on flourishing professionally in two sports – on making a name for herself on the football field and, during the off season, in the boxing ring, too.
But a picture posted on Facebook last year of Harris playing for her team Carlton Blues elevated the then 21-year-old beyond the world of sport. She became one of the most talked-about sportswomen on the planet.
First came the vile messages, and they came thick and fast – sexist, disturbing and damaging comments posted below a now iconic picture of Harris doing her job.
Harris’ fearless response was then shared by thousands on social media, prompting celebrities, and even Australia’s Prime Minister, to voice their support. She had stood up and spoken out. It changed her world.
With one tweet Harris had made a lasting impression in the usually transitory world of social media, while the photograph is now a symbol of defiance. T-shirts with her silhouette can be bought and a bronze statue of her was unveiled on Australian Women’s Day in September.
“I love it when a mum or a young daughter and son says to me ‘thanks for standing up to what you stood up for,’” Harris tells CNN Sport.
“If my example is going to help someone in any way, I would be happy to go through it all again. I’d rather not, but there’s been so many amazing messages. It’s been an eye-opening experience.”
‘Here’s a picture of me at work’
It is the opening minutes of the AFLW’s Pride Game between the Western Bulldogs and Carlton on March 17, 2019, and Harris, the Blues’ forward, has kicked the first goal of the game.
Photographer Michael Willson has brilliantly captured the athleticism of the act: she is mid-air, looking to her left, focusing on the trajectory of a ball which is out of shot. So gymnastically high is her right leg, her right foot is above her head. While a few feet from the ground, she is almost doing the splits.
What followed is said to have changed the landscape of women’s sport in Australia.
Posting the picture on its 7AFL Facebook page, Australian broadcaster Channel 7 captions it “photo of the year.”
Few could have foreseen that the number of, in the broadcaster’s words, “inappropriate and offensive” comments would lead to Channel 7 deleting the post 24 hours later because, it said, the messages had become difficult to monitor.
But erasing a picture that showcased the prowess of the women’s game caused more damage. After all, such an act does not silence trolls.
“THE PROBLEM WAS NOT THE PHOTO,” tweeted Sam Kerr, one of the world’s best female soccer players, echoing the thoughts of many. A few hours later, the hashtag “Tayla” was trending on Twitter.
At the time, Harris was at home getting ready for bed, “just doing my thing,” she says, when her phone started pinging. One notification rapidly following another.
“I didn’t think ‘oh, this is a really personal attack,” Harris explains. “I just thought, obviously this is a much bigger issue than just saying sexist things to people. It’s actually the start of something much worse.”
After a phone conversation with the chief executive of a national project which aims to eliminate domestic and family violence, Harris proceeded to post a message which became the most liked tweet of 2019 in Australia.
“Here’s a picture of me at work … think about this before your derogatory comments, animals,” Harris wrote. The tweet remains pinned at the top of her profile page.
“When I saw a little picture on Facebook and I’d see a young girl with a man who has made these comments, it was horrifying to think that this girl had to live, or be around someone, who is able to actually say these things. I thought about it in depth,” Harris continues.
“I responded after an hour or two. I thought ‘I have the photo, so I’ll just put it up and just chuck that caption on’ and what happened, happened. I didn’t put it up as a f**k you to Channel 7, I just put it up because I thought it was a cool photo.”
Harris went to bed with around 20,000 Twitter followers but by the next morning had an additional 60,000. There was an apology from Channel 7 for sending “the wrong message” by removing the photo from its social media accounts, while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the trolls “cowardly grubs.”
With a weekend match looming, Harris restricted herself to one radio interview in the immediate aftermath, during which she described the comments as sexual abuse, and held a press conference to sate the appetite of media organizations around the world. Carlton provided her with a security guard for the next game, against Fremantle.
“Surreal,” and a “roller-coaster” is how she sums up the week. “For the most part it was all positive,” she adds, “but I had to check in with myself and make sure this was something I was OK with because it was a really full on and busy, confronting few weeks.
“The really important thing for me was not to dilute the messaging or say something that could be misinterpreted, so I made sure I was really clear and articulate.”
To understand Harris’ inner strength, we must step back in time, to the first decade of the century when the self-confessed daddy’s girl was growing up in the northern suburbs of Brisbane and towering above her elementary schoolmates. She would grow to become 5ft 10in.