SPORTACCORD 2024 INSIGHTS: Tackling online abuse in sport

Online abuse – now at a record high in sport and society – was top of the agenda at SportAccord 2024, the world’s most influential gathering in global sport.

With experts coming together this spring in Birmingham-West Midlands under the ‘Power of Sport’ theme, our dedicated ‘Tackling online abuse in sport’ session was timely and potent!

Opening speaker Wayne Barnes, world rugbys most accomplished referee – who made global headlines after suffering ‘next-level’ abuse at the 2023 World Cup Final, forcing him to retire to protect himself and his family – successfully predicted the outcome of this vital SportAccord session, with this rallying call weeks before the event:

We often see sport lead the way and watch society follow. Society is crying out for someone to say no longer will we accept the abhorrent abuse that has spawned out of social media. SportAccord could be a chance for sport to show how powerful it can be.”

Together we did just that!

Barnes, now Partner in Squire Patton Boggs’ Government Investigations & White Collar Practice – and accomplished criminal barrister and trial advocate – welcomed the first successful prosecution for online hate against him, just days before SportAccord 2024:

“There have now been half a dozen active investigations with police authorities or prosecuting authorities across the globe following last year’s Rugby World Cup.”

Anonymous abusers uncovered

Thanks to Jonathan Hirshler, CEO of data science company Signify Group – whose AI-powered Threat Matrix monitoring system helps international sports organisations to detect, analyse and tackle online abuse – the opportunity to take action to create a safer online environment for athletes, officials and fans is now very real.

Convictions and criminal investigations of online abusers – and removing the opportunity for abusive fans to attend live sport – have all been made possible. This same technology is also helping international sports organisations to directly protect athletes on social media, as well as create education initiatives for their staff to deal with online abuse issues.

“Understanding the problem – what does it look like,” is key, explained Hirshler, as he took SportAccord delegates through compelling case studies across sport – from basketball to football, from tennis to rugby. “Now the data is there. You can do more about it.”

Real-life consequences

Sarah Gregorius, Director of Global Policy & Strategic Relations for Womens Football at FIFPRO, opened a special panel session focusing on online abuse with Barnes, Hirshler, Sanjay Bhandari MBE, Chair of Kick It Out and Janie Frampton OBE, Vice President of International Federation for Sports Officials.

Highlighting the successful conviction and investigations on the back of hard data from Signify, Gregorius said: “I am a fan of actions having consequences. There are consequences for behaviour online, in the way there are offline – here in the real world. This sets a very strong precedent. This sets a deterrent.”

Pointing to the rise of online abuse, Frampton – an active football referee for 29 years, becoming the second women to operate within men’s professional football, referenced her own off-line, match-time experiences: “The fact that I’m a woman – I don’t have to do anything else – that’s what annoys people. The fact that I turn up at a men’s game.”

This is not a sport thing – this is a societal thing,” she underlined, opening up the opportunity for the panel to discuss the full range of options open to football – from grassroots to the top of the professional game – to take serious action.

Bhandari left a lasting impression on delegates at SportAccord, sharing insight from his recent UK Parliamentary Select Committee address:

“The culture of our society is set by the worst behaviour we’re prepared to accept. And that behaviour may start online, but it doesn’t finish online.”

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Special spotlight – Paris 2024

With just two weeks to go to the Olympic & Paralympic Games Paris 2024, we’re taking the opportunity to highlight the IOC’s AI-powered monitoring service to protect Olympians and Paralympians from online abuse during the Games – read more.