Tech and Law: Tackling Online Abuse in Sports

by | Jun 24, 2024

In today’s hyper-connected world, the internet offers unprecedented connectivity, creativity, and democratization. However, this digital frontier also harbors a darker side: the relentless rise of online abuse, particularly targeting athletes. Over the past decade, this issue has escalated dramatically, transforming from isolated incidents to a widespread epidemic affecting sports figures across all disciplines. The convergence of personal stories, alarming statistics, and emerging solutions paints a comprehensive picture of this crisis and the ongoing efforts to mitigate it.

In 2024, the internet’s landscape has evolved significantly from its early days, and the concerns expressed by former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger about its darker aspects have become a significant challenge for athletes. As the UEFA Euro 2024 tournament in Germany approached, the England squad faced a new reality. Instead of solely focusing on their game plan, they were briefed on the threats of online abuse, with police officers assuring them that any such abuse would be taken seriously. This proactive measure underscores the gravity of the issue, reflecting a shift in how seriously online abuse is now being treated.

The personal toll of online abuse on athletes is profound and deeply troubling. Scottish Olympian Kirsty Gilmour’s experience is a case in point. After losing international badminton matches, she faced death threats that left her feeling helpless. “I don’t know what can be done; I even worry that talking about it will invite more and give attention to these people,” she shared, highlighting the pervasive sense of vulnerability among athletes. Former Nottingham Forest striker Jason Cummings echoed this sentiment, defending his teammate, Leigh Griffiths. “People say it’s part of the job because you’re in the public eye, but…it should not … be part of the job,” Cummings asserted, underscoring the normalization of abuse that athletes are expected to endure.

Alarming statistics further illustrate the severity of the issue. Reports and studies indicate that online abuse in sports is not abating but intensifying. World Athletics’ study during the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest revealed that abuse levels were “noticeably higher” than in 2022, with racist abuse alone accounting for over one-third of all incidents—a 14% increase from the previous year. Similarly, FIFA and FIFPRO’s report on the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 showed that one in five players received targeted discriminatory messages, nearly 50% of which were homophobic, sexual, or sexist in nature. These figures are a stark reminder of the pervasive and growing nature of online abuse in sports.

The psychological toll of online abuse is equally concerning. A study by Loughborough University warns that “…online abuse can negatively impact athlete wellbeing and performance and can result in physical and psychological harm.” This is evident in the case of Owen Farrell, the England Rugby Union captain, who decided to take a break from international rugby to prioritize his and his family’s mental wellbeing. US writer Alyssa Royse described her long-term effects from online abuse as akin to “social media PTSD,” underscoring the lasting impact of online abuse, even years after the incidents. The anonymity provided by the internet emboldens individuals to express thoughts they might never vocalize in person, mirroring broader societal issues.

Technological solutions and robust legal measures are at the forefront of combating online abuse in sports. AI moderation platforms like are already making strides by scanning and moderating abusive comments in real-time. Their partnership with entities like Mercedes F1 and Fulham FC demonstrates the potential for broader adoption across sports. Signify’s ‘Threat Matrix’ service, which successfully identified abusers during the Rugby World Cup, illustrates the potential for stripping anonymity from perpetrators, leading to more prosecutions and serving as a deterrent for future abusers. The introduction of the Online Safety Act (OSA) in October 2023 marks a significant step towards combating this issue, requiring social media platforms to prevent and remove illegal content and providing users with tools to control their online interactions.

Clubs and governing bodies are increasingly focusing on educating athletes about online abuse. This includes methods to deal with abuse, discussions around the benefits and disadvantages of private and public accounts, and what constitutes suitable behavior on social media channels. The implementation of cease and desist letters, civil injunctions, and private prosecutions offers additional legal avenues to combat online abuse. Stadium bans and membership revocations further emphasize that abusive behavior will have consequences. By taking proactive steps, they not only protect their athletes but also create a deterrent for potential abusers. Publicizing these measures and prosecutions can shift the narrative, showing that online abuse will no longer be tolerated.

The sports world has the potential to lead the way in combating this societal issue, setting an example for other sectors to follow. The convergence of personal stories, statistical evidence, and emerging solutions underscores the urgency of addressing online abuse and the multifaceted approach needed to combat it effectively. As more clubs and governing bodies take proactive steps, they are not only safeguarding their athletes but also contributing to a broader cultural shift towards zero tolerance for online abuse.