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Why does online abuse occur in sport?

Online abuse is a problem in most facets of life. What makes sport special? Does it differ in a sporting context.
Crowd of excited sports fans cheering during a match in stadium.
© Shutterstock

Online abuse is a problem in most facets of life. What makes sport special? Does it differ in a sporting context? These are the questions you should be asking right now.

Emotional context of sport

Sport provides enclaves where people can express their emotions openly, in ways that would be considered socially unacceptable in any of the other spaces in which we live our lives. In what other walk of life would it be acceptable to scream and shout or tackle a person in an aggressive fashion?

Sport provides a very important emotional outlet, where what the sociologists Eric Dunning and Norbert Elias describe as the ‘controlled, de-controlling of emotions’ occurs. In short, we can experience an emotional catharsis, a release from the routinisation of everyday life through sport. Furthermore, sport lends itself to spontaneous outbursts of emotion as action unfolds.

This is typically a good thing. It is one of the reasons we put so much emphasis on increasing participation in sport. However, the emotional intensity that sporting spaces and the rivalries they produce provoke, can also, at the same time, spill over into abuse and violence. Again, we can look to football as an example, in particular the hooligan culture that dominated UK football in the 1980s and still remains prevalent in certain parts of the world.

Today, in the hyper-commercialised era of sport, hooliganism has been pushed to the margins, mostly away from stadiums that seek safer and more family-friendly atmospheres. Where does that emotion, that intensity go? In the sporting context, it can go online, where it can be seen, where it is more difficult to police, where tensions and rivalries can play out 24 hours a day.


Sport also plays a key role in our identities. We are social beings and we want to align ourselves with others because of the comfort it brings. Hence, we often define ourselves based on our membership in social groups. This identity can affect our behaviour and attitudes. This is known as social identity theory.

Individuals compare their group favourably with other groups, enhancing their self-esteem. This often involves emphasising the positive qualities of one’s own group and derogating other groups.

This is particularly evident in sport where we tend to commit loyalty to a specific team or even athlete. As sport literally involves specific groups competing against each other, it can lead to a strengthening of the in-group, but also raise tensions with out-groups. This is where intergroup discrimination occurs and abuse can develop in extreme circumstances.

This facet of our social psychology is not aided by the design of most social media platforms. Social media algorithms are designed to prioritise content that aligns with users’ preferences and interests. While this can enhance user experience by showing relevant content, it also creates filter bubbles and echo chambers, where individuals are primarily exposed to information and opinions that reinforce their existing beliefs and identities. This can further entrench in-group favouritism and reinforce stereotypes about out-groups, leading to polarisation. This further fosters a culture of abuse.

Motorsports, FIA Girls on Track racing motorcars. © FIA Girls on Track

Sport mirrors society

Sport has long been an influential battleground in which political, economic, cultural, and social issues have played out locally, nationally and internationally.

Sport forms a key part of our individual, regional and national identities. Cultural tensions have always played out here. For example, hosting major events like the Olympics have historically been viewed as big declarations of soft power on the world stage. However, even the smallest local derby can be couched in history and serve as powerful expressions of identity.

Abuse is born from such complex tensions. Sport can bring out the worst in us.

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Online Abuse in Sport

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