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Impacts of online abuse

This step explores the broad impact of online abuse in sport beyond just athletes, shedding light on other overlooked groups.
Vector illustration symbolising abuse and harassment, an upset woman is crying from fingers pointing at her.
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This step explores the broad impact of online abuse in sport beyond just athletes, shedding light on overlooked groups like fans, officials, sponsors, administrators, and journalists.

Who is impacted?

The majority of research articulates the extent to which athletes deal with online abuse in sport, and they have to deal with a lot, particularly high profile athletes. Former footballer turned pundit Eni Aluko articulates the experience in an Instagram post:

I’ve genuinely been scared this week…I didn’t leave my house until Friday and I’m now abroad. Because it’s really important to say that online abuse has a direct impact on your safety and how you feel and how safe you feel in real life.
I’ve felt under threat this week. I’ve felt like something is going to happen to me. And I don’t say that for anyone to feel sorry for me – I say that for people to understand the reality and the impact that hate speech has. The impact that racism has. The impact that sexism has. The impact that misogyny has on all of us females in the game, in sports broadcasting.

However, it is important to note that it is not just athletes who receive abuse, and it is not just they who are impacted by the abuse they receive.

Fans, despite being the largest group, are overlooked. Research often focuses on them as perpetrators. However, they are often caught in the crossfire and also suffer indirectly from witnessing the abuse that athletes receive. For example, homophobic abuse aimed at high-profile athletes will also be viewed by gay fans. It is an attack on them as well as the athlete.

Our research indicates that a wide number of stakeholders, including, for example, officials, sponsors, administrators, and journalists are also the target of abuse. Journalists in particular have a unique role, in that they report on stakeholders directly involved in the production of sport to the consumers of sport. Often, they are in a position where the ‘messenger’ is blamed for the bad news and/or they are viewed as the enemy by both athletes/teams and fans for writing anything viewed as negative.

What are the impacts?

The psychological impacts are the most obvious. Even for those with the thickest skin, receiving any form of abuse, particularly in a public setting is something that is very difficult to manage at a personal level. This will also extend to concerns about how it will affect family, friends and loved ones. This is going to reduce the quality of sporting performance. This is going to significantly impact quality of life.

At a broader level, it has significant implications for sport. It can potentially impact the enjoyment of sport and general participation. Why would any young person want to engage in a culture where they are likely to witness or even be the subject of abuse?

If it is particularly prevalent in any aspect of sport it can impact upon the commercial attractiveness of the sport. Sponsors and ultimately viewers may be put off.

These are some of the headline impacts that may initially come to mind. However, our engagement with a wide variety of stakeholders uncovers a number of implications that may not immediately come to mind. For example, our work with sports journalists shows the obvious psychological and personal impacts receiving abuse can have, however, it also shows us that some journalists who receive abuse are likely to censor their work if they feel it will lead to abuse. When journalists have to censor their work, this has big implications for democracy.

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Online Abuse in Sport

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