Online Abuse Puts Sports At Risk Of Losing Stars: UAOA Survey

International sporting federations and NGOs have come together in the first ever industry-wide barometer survey to express grave concerns about the harmful effect that online abuse is having on sport and its competitors.

Among the headline findings of the survey, undertaken by the United Against Online abuse campaign, was a concern among the 22 sporting federations and NGOs which participated that abuse is driving sports stars from competition.

Organisations including FIFA, UCI, ITF, World Athletics, World Netball and the FIA contributed to the new research examining the extent and impact of online abuse.

Their responses paint a clear image of a challenging and aggressive social media environment.  Three quarters of federations said that sports stars regularly face threats of harm against themselves or their families, with 90% saying that this is likely to lead to them quitting the sport.

Respondents also set out their solutions, with 95% 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 online abuse cases, including those against 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 UAOA was the abuse suffered by an FIA female steward from Spain at the time of the Mexican Grand Prix in 2022.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem, Founding Partner of UAOA and President of the 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 behavioural 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 United Against Online Abuse 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 (DCU). The coalition recently onboarded three DCU scholars, who will continue to bolster this research and strengthen industry understanding of the issue.

Professor 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 like the IOC 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 programme 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 join forces to rid sport of online abuse. Several members reiterated that commitment in their responses to the UAOA barometer survey.

Dame Liz Nicholl, DBE, President of World Netball, said: “At World Netball, our vision is to make netball a sport that is open to all, and this stretches to the online space. We want all of the Netball Family to feel included and respected on social media. There is no space for abuse.

“It was important for netball to be part of this UAOA initiative, and we look forward to helping to make social media safe for all those within our game; from the fans to our officials, and of course our athletes at every level.”

Jorge Viegas, President of the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM), said: the global governing body of motorcycle racing, said: “The FIM is proud to be an UAOA partner and to be part of this initial step so that we can gauge and analyse the findings in order that we can better protect our riders and motorcycling sport in general from online abuse.

“By co-operating and collaborating with other sporting federations, our united approach is one of the best ways to limit this kind of abuse. From the results of the survey, we can now look to strengthen certain areas and ensure that we focus our efforts for the next part of this important process.”

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.”