United Against Online Abuse: A Call for Global Action in Sports.

19 Dec 2023

The toxic issue of online abuse and hate speech in sports has become a major threat to athletes, supporters and sports organisations across the world. The rising tide of negativity extends far beyond the digital platforms as it directly influences participation in sports and undermines inclusivity and diversity. As sports organisations and digital regulators stand at a crossroads, the need for a coordinated, international effort to combat online abuse in sports has never been more pressing.

Every day, athletes; officials and sports supporters face a barrage of online attacks based on gender, ethnicity, and other characteristics. These vitriolic comments and abusive imagery not only tarnish the image and spirit of sports but can also discourage women and young girls in particular from continuing to engage in sports. This alarming trend demands immediate attention and a resolute, zero-tolerance approach to safeguard the integrity of sports participation. 

Recognising the urgency of this matter, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) has launched the “United Against Online Abuse” campaign. This global initiative seeks to unite major international sports governing bodies in a coalition against online abuse, fostering a common understanding and common actions on the issue through academic research, data analysis, and engagement with athletes, supporters, and technology giants hosting online platforms such as Google, Mozilla, YouTube, Twitter, and others. 

Clark Hill as an international law firm are pleased to be the legal advisors to this important global initiative.

The complexity of identifying perpetrators in the online world underscores the need for collaboration by technology companies and online platforms with sports bodies to address the problem. Fake user accounts and anonymous profiles can make it difficult to pinpoint the individuals behind the abuse. The FIA’s research-led initiative, in partnership with leading universities and research institutions, aims to examine the causes, impacts, patterns and effects of online abuse in sports globally.

United Against Online Abuse educational workshop at the 2023 MENA Karting Cup in Doha
United Against Online Abuse educational workshop at the 2023 MENA Karting Cup in Doha

Governments, sports bodies, and international organisations have acknowledged the need to confront online abuse due to its adverse effects on athletes’ mental health and well-being. The United Nations, through its Charter and human rights frameworks, has taken a stand against hate speech and online abuse. However, more comprehensive efforts are required to address the international nature of online abuse and enhance cooperation for legal assistance and prosecution.

Major technology companies play a pivotal role in combating online abuse by leveraging Artificial Intelligence and machine learning algorithms to identify the abusers and to prevent the spread of this toxicity. Constant updates and improvements to these technologies are crucial. Some companies employ human moderators to review and remove abusive content, while others redirect users attempting to access extreme material to challenge its use.

Many incidents of online abuse and hate crime cross national boundaries and require improved international cooperation for legal assistance and prosecution in relation to such crimes.

While the right to freedom of expression is important and  comments that may offend, shock or disturb are often protected , to ensure a safe environment for athletes and sports officials and supporters they should not create fear or a threat. 

In the pursuit of a safer online environment, the corporate and legal responsibilities of online communication platform providers must be reviewed. Ethical codes of conduct and rules for media, providers, and users can be developed in collaboration with international online platforms; regulators and operators. Enhanced legal protection for athletes, sports supporters, journalists, elected officials, researchers and those targeted by organised online abuse campaigns is also urgently needed. Constant training and education of law enforcement, prosecutors and judges on online abuse; harassment ; hate speech and threats is essential as this conduct evolves and mutates across digital platforms . The procedures for handling reported online abuse and hate speech to law enforcement and sports organisations require scrutiny and improvement, reinforcing the commitment to eradicating such behaviour from the sports community. This may involve model anti online abuse policies amongst sports organisations that adopt a zero-tolerance approach to such conduct at all levels.  

Online hate speech and abuse, whether racist, misogynistic, sectarian, or directed at individuals based on their identity, has no place in sports. It not only affects performance but creates a toxic environment of social anxiety and fear, limiting social interaction. Addressing this issue is not just a matter of protecting individuals, it is a crucial step towards preserving the reputation of sports organisations, ensuring their financial and reputational stability, and upholding the true spirit of sport. As we stand united against online abuse, a collective effort is needed to champion a sports culture that is inclusive, respectful, and free from online abuse and hate speech in all its forms.

Written by Clark Hill LLP – UAOA Partner