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How Sports Clubs and Governing Bodies are Protecting Their Officials and Athletes
Sunday, June 23, 2024

Former Arsenal Manager, Arsène Wenger famously said “We have gone from a vertical society to a horizontal society where everybody has an opinion about every decision you make, and everybody has an opinion on the Internet straight away.”[1]

In 2024, Wenger’s words could not be more relatable. The internet has many wonderful features. It allows us to share, create, inspire, generate income, raise awareness, and meet new people. It has given us access to things that Wenger wouldn’t have even thought about when he made that statement but, in 2024, the internet and social media permits direct access to sports men and women that we do not know and may never meet. And it is that direct access, wrapped in a cloak of internet anonymity, coupled with the belief that there will be no consequence for what is said or done online that has led to a dramatic growth in online abuse over the past decade.

What does this look like in reality?

Remember the classic saying, if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Well, it appears online, we are not all playing by the same set of rules.

Ahead of the UEFA Euro 2024 tournament in Germany, instead of focusing on the beautiful game, the England squad have been briefed on the threat of online abuse. Police officers have reassured players that they will “take seriously” any abuse during the tournament. [2]

Scottish Olympian Kirsty Gilmour revealed last year that she regularly receives online death threats when she loses international badminton matches.

“I don’t know what can be done; I even worry that talking about it will invite more and give attention to these people.”[3]

Kirsty Gilmour, two-times Commonwealth Games medallist.

Former Nottingham Forest striker, Jason Cummings, recently spoke out in support of his teammate, Leigh Griffiths, stating:

“It can go too far. Just because you’re in the public eye it’s like they can say what they want to you and not get in trouble. People say it’s part of the job because you’re in the public eye, but…it should not … be part of the job, especially with some of the horrible messages you receive online.”[4]

Jason Cummings

Manchester United footballer, Bruno Fernandes, faced a torrent of abuse after missing a penalty against Aston Villa in September 2021. Hateful comments on his personal pages increased by 3,000% that day. On average, he received a hateful or abusive comment from a different person every minute. He continued to receive hateful messages every hour for two weeks following the miss.[5]

Interestingly, an athlete’s success is as much a target for abuse as their defeats. After breaking the NBA scoring record, LeBron James received 1.3 pieces of hateful or abusive content every minute in the 24 hours following.[6]

Recent high profile sport events have highlighted that levels of online abuse are not decreasing but actually increasing. In December 2023, World Athletics published a study into the online abuse of athletes conducted during the World Athletics Championships 2023 in Budapest. The study concluded that the levels of abuse from Budapest were “noticeably higher” during the 2023 competition than at the previous World Athletics Championships in 2022. World Athletics found that racist abuse made up over one third of all abuse (35%) in 2023, which was a 14% increase from 2022, and 16% of abuse was sexual or sexist in nature.[7]

FIFA and FIFPRO conducted a similar report at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023. It was identified that 1 in 5 players at the tournament received targeted discriminatory, abusive, or threatening messages with almost 50% of “detected verified abusive messages” being homophobic, sexual and sexist abuse.[8]

Footballers such as Neal Maupay, Marcus Rashford and rugby player Ashton Hewitt have all spoken out bravely about the online abuse they have suffered. Neal Maupay reported that the online abuse he had received is “100% worse” now than it was even a few years ago.[9] Following Manchester United’s 0-0 draw against Arsenal in January 2021, Rashford tweeted it was “humanity and social media at its worst” which many commentators suggest was a response to the racist abuse he received online following the match.[10]

Ashton Hewitt faced shocking racist abuse. He said he “never engaged much on social media until I started to speak about things that are important to me regarding social change and equality.” Whilst some conversations were inspiring, he was “overwhelmed” by what came his way from trolls and he accepts he “didn’t handle it very well”.[11]

What is this doing to the athletes?

A recent research paper conducted by Loughborough University gave a stark warning:

“…online abuse can negatively impact athlete wellbeing and performance and can result in physical and psychological harm.”[12]

Following the Rugby World Cup in France, England Rugby Union captain Owen Farrell decided to take a break from international rugby to prioritise his and his family’s mental wellbeing[13]. This is not surprising given that the United Against Online Abuse Barometer Report 2024 found that 90% of the governing bodies and sporting federations which responded to the survey agreed that online abuse had the potential to drive athletes to withdraw from participating in their sport.[14] 

Dr. Emma Kavanagh, an associate professor in Sports Psychology at Bournemouth University, recently presented her research on the online abuse of elite athletes to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She explained that:

“…virtual worlds mirror face-to-face environments, therefore abuse which is present in physical spaces can be replicated in and/or augmented by online environments”

She explains that the suffering of athletes who receive abuse online on athletes is real:

“…contrary to claims that violence online is mostly innocuous, there is now a growing number of academic studies that collectively demonstrate how the suffering caused by violence experienced online is real, tangible, and embodied.”

US writer Alyssa Royse explained the long-term effects she has suffered even years after experiencing abuse on Twitter:

“It felt scary going back online after the abuse I experienced. It was anxiety filled. If I see that I have a Twitter notification, I still get nervous, and its years later. It’s often just my friends making jokes with me but literally seeing that I have a Twitter notification makes me so nervous…So, I’m not sure that anxiety ever went away. It’s some form of social media PTSD. I laugh at it because it’s usually nothing, but the feeling is very real.”[15]

So, what can be done about it?

REGULATING abuse

Tackling online abuse is at the forefront of everyone’s agenda with the introduction of the Online Safety Act (“OSA”), which came into force on 26 October 2023. The OSA imposes requirements on social media platforms to not only prevent and remove illegal content from their services, but also to provide users with tools to allow them greater control over the content they see, and which other users they interact with. This should mean that all adult users are given the option to verify their identity and filter out “non-verified users”.

Disappointingly, the OSA falls short of insisting that individuals provide identification documents when creating an account, which would be a huge step forward in deterring internet trolls. Concerns are regularly raised over whether social media companies should be able to hold sensitive personal data. However, one counterargument to that is to allow third-party platforms to hold such data on the proviso that it will only be disclosed if the criminal threshold is met. It is suggested that this would act as a deterrent to would-be abusers. It would give abusers a stern but fair warning; if you break the law, you can be identified, and we will share your details with the police – the ball is in your court. However, the UK Government is not currently considering such a radical step.

Whilst the OSA has put a point on the scoreboard in the battle to fight online abuse, the extent of how much assistance the OSA will be is effectively still in the hands of the officials as they work out the finer details.

Therefore, sporting administrators are looking at other ways of preventing the abuse, such as:

EDUCATING athletes on abuse

It’s always a delicate balance between asking people to behave in a way to protect themselves but also being conscious that if individuals across society behaved better, upheld the rule of law and considered others, there would be no need to ask people to alter their habits.

We really shouldn’t have to explain to athletes that part of their job is to deal with and offset online abuse. Unfortunately, that has become part of an athlete’s job description as we see an increase in online abuse simply because we want to keep our athletes safe.

Clubs are now not only providing education on well-trodden tracks around online risks, namely users exploiting athletes’ communications for their own illicit gains, but some clubs have recently introduced educational topics relating to athletes’ wellbeing, methods to deal with online abuse, discussions around the benefits and disadvantages of private and public accounts and what is suitable behaviour on social media channels.

HIDING abuse

Athletes who are active online can use tools offered by the social media platforms to protect themselves by activating filters, utilising hidden words (a feature that lets you mute certain words from your feed) as well as removing comments completely.

For athletes who don’t want to navigate the T&Cs of each platform and have to consider all of the potential words they may wish to hide, Arwen.ai, an AI moderation platform can do the leg work for them. Arwen.ai uses artificial intelligence to scan every comment made on selected social media channels. It currently partners with Mercedes F1, Fulham FC and ITV and studies every comment across 30 different languages on their channels looking for messages of hate or abuse. Arwen then automatically moderates those comments in real time, hiding them from view and protecting the intended targets and the public.

Not only does this prevent their individual drivers from seeing these comments, Mercedes has also seen a benefit for the team too. With the removal of all toxic comments from their social media platforms, they saw an increase of 29.4% by their fans into active engagement.[16]

IDENTIFYING abuse

The data and artificial intelligence firm, Signify has had recent success in removing the cloak of anonymity at the Rugby World Cup by using their online threat and monitoring analysis, ‘Threat Matrix’. They describe the Threat Matrix offering as a service that strips anonymity from the protagonists and ensures that abusers don’t go unpunished.

During the recent Rugby World Cup, 38 evidence packs were compiled where Signify were able to identify an individual where they believed that the criminal threshold had been crossed. Prosecutions are currently underway in 4 separate jurisdictions. Furthermore, there has been a conviction in the Australian Courts. An individual pleaded guilty to using an online communication platform to menace or harass Brian MacNeice, the television match official, during England’s win over Samoa. The individual avoided prison but was sentenced to a 12-month good behaviour bond of 1,000 Australian dollars.[17]

PUNISHING abusers

Signify has shown they can assist their sporting partners to engage with the relevant law enforcement agencies and help bring criminal prosecutions. Still, there are also other ways clubs and governing bodies can support their athletes and show to would-be abusers that there will be consequences.

  • Injunctions: Some commentators have suggested that an effective remedy could be through the civil courts using the Protection from Harassment Act, as threats of physical violence does not need to be repeated, a single threat is enough for an action to be commenced. Most claims would hopefully bring the abusive behaviour to an end, but breaches of the terms of any injunction could lead to applications for contempt of court, punishable by up to two years imprisonment in the most serious cases. Costs can also be awarded, and it would be hard to see what argument a respondent, the online abuser, could raise as to why they should not pay the applicant’s costs.
  • Cease and Desist Letters: Another effective route to help bring an end to abusive messages is to issue a strong cease and desist letter directly to the perpetrator. On receipt, the abuser knows in clear terms the unlawful acts they have committed, and the legal consequences should they persist in abusive behaviour.

“Amongst other claims mentioned elsewhere in this article, a victim can bring claims for abusive messages in defamation, misuse of private information, copyright infringement, trademark infringement or malicious falsehood. A cease and desist is a precursor to bringing a claim at court, although litigation is rarely necessary to bring an end to abusive behaviour once the aggressor has been identified.”

IP specialist Partner Carlton Daniel at Squire Patton Boggs.

Whilst identifying the perpetrator of the online abuse can sometimes be a difficult task, in particular, if the abuser is located abroad, the English courts are well-versed in compelling the online platforms and internet companies on and through which the abuse occurs to disclose the details of the relevant account holders.

  • Private Prosecutions: The Police and the Crown Prosecution Service (“CPS”) will, on some occasions, be prepared to investigate and prosecute certain online abuse matters. Still, with police forces’ budgetary and resource constraints, it is easy to see how such a prosecution might not even reach a lawyer’s desk, let alone a courtroom. However, criminal prosecutions can be pursued privately by any individual, company, charity or NGO, allowing greater control in the investigation stage and proceedings afterwards.

“If there is sufficient evidence to support a criminal case in relation to online abuse, the ability to bring a private prosecution provides vital access to justice for victims of crimes either where the state has refused to prosecute a case due to resourcing issues, or where there was preference to bring a private prosecution to help maintain, and protect the privacy of the victim that can be further impacted through a police investigation and CPS prosecution.”

Ben Ticehurst, Legal Director at Squire Patton Boggs, and the Vice Chair of the Private Prosecutors Association, who has extensive experience in bringing private prosecutions.

BANNING abusers

Identification of individuals also allows teams and governing bodies to issue stadium bans, remove memberships, or prevent attendance at certain events.

During the 2023 football season, an international player was the subject of racial abuse posted on Instagram. The offender was identified, and when it became apparent that he played the game at a grass-roots level, the governing body revoked his playing license and informed the grass-roots team of the offending behaviour.

Arsenal has an on-going relationship with Signify and are working together to further the club’s drive to show that abusive and discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated. Since the start of the 2021/22 season, eighteen supporters have been handed three-year bans, meaning they cannot attend any Arsenal match home or away during that period.

Governing bodies taking a strong stance and preventing online abusers from attending the sport that they are passionate about, will again show that that this detestable behaviour will have consequences.

SHOUTING about abuse

As more and more cases are reported, more and more clubs and governing bodies are realising that they are not the only ones suffering from this toxic issue. It is not a slight on their team or on their sport if their athletes are receiving abuse, it is a wider societal issue and one that sport can lead on.

Teams who talk about the proactive steps that they are taking and talk about the prosecutions that are happening, can not only show that they are serious about protecting their athletes, but can also create a deterrent for other would-be abusers. In the past, we have heard governing bodies say that if they give airtime to abusive messages, it may lead to others copying their behaviour. Kirsty Gilmour explained she worried “that talking about it will invite more”[18] abuse, but if individuals know that they can now be identified and that they will be punished, then perhaps they will think again.

Society is crying out for someone to say no longer will we accept the abhorrent abuse that has spawned out of social media, and it looks as if sport may lead the way once again.


[1]https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/manchester-united/10240770/David-Moyes-Arsene-Wenger-and-Brendan-Rodgers-on-discipline-crisis-management-style-and-steel.html

[2]https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/articles/cjk4p73z8k5o

[3]https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-65137787

[4]https://www.nottinghampost.com/sport/football/football-news/nottingham-forest-jason-cummings-dundee-6108890

[5]Crisp-a-Kroll-business-Online-abuse-in-sports.pdf (sportspromedia.com)

[6]Crisp-a-Kroll-business-Online-abuse-in-sports.pdf (sportspromedia.com)

[7]https://worldathletics.org/news/press-releases/third-study-online-abuse-added-protection

[8]https://inside.fifa.com/social-impact/campaigns/no-discrimination/media-releases/fifa-and-fifpro-release-report-on-the-social-media-protection-service-at-the

[9]Inside the Premier League unit hunting online trolls who threaten players – BBC News

[10]https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/55872681;%20https:/news.sky.com/story/marcus-rashford-says-people-behind-racist-abuse-should-have-social-media-accounts-deleted-immediately-12216435

[11] I was overwhelmed by online racist abuse – Hewitt – https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/articles/cp9g94zx9eko#:~:text=%22I%20never%20engaged%20much%20on,experiences%20that%20reflected%20their%20own.

[12]https://repository.lboro.ac.uk/articles/online_resource/Safeguarding_Online_Sporting_Spaces_Examining_Virtual_Maltreatment_Abuse_and_Toxic_Social_Media_Practices_Experienced_by_Olympic_Athletes/24977928

[13]https://www.englandrugby.com/news/article/owen-farrell-to-take-break-from-test-rugby

[14]2024 BAROMETER REPORT

[15]https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/03/online-violence-against-women-chapter-6-6/

[16]https://www.arwen.ai/case_studies/mercedes-amg-f1

[17]https://www.skysports.com/rugby-union/news/12321/13111243/rugby-world-cup-fan-in-australia-prosecuted-for-online-abuse-of-referee-in-england-fixture

[18]Badminton star sent rape and death threats from gamblers – BBC News

Grace King and Olivia Canessa Davies also contributed to this article.

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