Online abuse puts sports at risk of losing stars, survey finds

PARIS: Several international sporting federations and NGOs are concerned about the harmful effects of online abuse on sportspeople, a new survey has found.

Among the headline findings of the survey, undertaken by the United Against Online Abuse, or UAOA, campaign, was a concern among the 22 sporting federations and NGOs surveyed that abuse is driving sports stars from competitions.

Organizations including the umbrella bodies for football, motorsports, tennis, athletics and netball contributed to the new research, which was released on Thursday.

Their responses paint a picture of a challenging and aggressive social media environment. Two-thirds of the federations said that sports stars regularly face threats of harm against themselves or their families, with 90 percent saying that this is likely to lead to them quitting their sport.

Respondents also set out their solutions, with 95 percent saying that social media platforms have a key role to play in tackling the problem, either voluntarily or under obligation.

The statistics come in the wake of a spate of high-profile cases, including abuse suffered online by former England midfielder Eni Aluko, world tennis No. 8 Daria Kasatkina, Chelsea forward Lauren James and recently-retired World Cup rugby referee Wayne Barnes. In fact, one of the main triggers for the FIA’s launch of the UAOA was the abuse suffered by an FIA female steward from Spain during the 2022 Mexican Grand Prix.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem, founding partner of the UAOA and president of motorsports’ FIA, said: “Online abuse is a persistent issue within the sporting world. A number of international federations have voiced their concerns via our barometer survey and in regular discussions we have held since the campaign launch in 2022. The survey findings highlight the importance of united anti-abuse efforts across sporting ecosystems and beyond.

“As part of the UAOA campaign, the aim of our coalition is to rid our sport of the scourge of online abuse. Together we seek to bring about behavioral and regulatory change to create a safer, more harmonious environment free of abuse, hate speech and harassment. We already have the support of a number of sporting bodies and governments and are in discussions with other stakeholders to grow our support base.”

The UAOA campaign is leading the way in these efforts. Drawing together international federations, governments (from Albania, Belgium, France, Greece, Malaysia, Slovenia, Spain) and NGOs (including Peace and Sport), the group has carried out extensive research into online abuse and hate speech, alongside its research partner Dublin City University. The coalition recently onboarded three DCU scholars, who will continue to bolster this research and strengthen industry understanding of the issue.

Prof. David Hassan, principal investigator for the UAOA research study, said: “This research provides us with a baseline for our work going forward. Now that we have established the extent of the problem across sporting federations, we are well placed to address this issue and tackle its root causes, alongside other researchers, governments, and campaign groups.

“In conversations with Ifs (international federations) like the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and FIFA, there is a common desire to gain a better understanding of the cause and effect of online abuse. That is one of the main goals of our research scholarship program in collaboration with DCU. The findings of that research will inform our strategic approach going forward.”

Coalition members have been united in their desire to rid sport of online abuse. Several members reiterated that commitment in their responses to the UAOA barometer survey.

Boban Totovski, general secretary of the International Esports Federation, said: “The International Esports Federation is built on respect, not rage. Whether you’re a pro player or a weekend warrior, let’s spread positive vibes and make Esports a community, not a battleground. Level up your sportsmanship, not your toxicity. Remember, the real victory is respect, not burning books. Let’s make esports a place where everyone feels welcome.”

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