Behind the Field: Hate Speech in Sports Community

Internet has changed the way sports fans interacted not only between fans, but also towards the athletes.

Photo by Sandro Schuh on Unsplash


The world of sports is a passionate one, filled with enthusiastic fans who cheer for their favourite athletes or teams. On match day, people come wearing their team’s attributes, cheering when their favourite player scores a goal or makes a basket, and booing when the opposition does the same. However, with the advancement of technology, even when there is no game, these same people still find time to argue online.

Unfortunately, the rise of online sports communities has brought out a darker side of this passion. With the ease of communication and the ability to voice their opinion anonymously, some individuals have used this platform to express their hateful thoughts publicly.

In this discussion, I will explore the issue of hate speech within online sports communities, its impact on athletes and the world of sports, and the role of government to make them a healthier and more respectful environment.

What is Hate Speech?

Parekh (2012. as cited in Flew, 2022) defined hate speech as  ‘expresses, encourages, stirs up, or incites hatred against a group of individuals distinguished by a particular feature or set of features such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, and sexual orientation.’ The UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech (n.d.) has a broader definition of hate speech, which is any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.”

Based on those definitions, we can observe that hate speech is a form of communication that is discriminatory and ignites hatred towards a group or an individual based on their identity factors. With the advancement of the internet and technology in general, hate speech is not only done in person but also through social media, blogs, and other platforms.

Vogels (2021) reported that 41% of Americans have personally experienced online harassment in at least one of six ways that were measured, which are physical threats, stalking, sustained harassment, sexual harassment, offensive name-calling, and purposeful embarrassment. The report also stated that 75% of targets of online abuse experienced their most recent harassment on social media. So, while the internet has pros, we should not forget how it can enable people with bad intentions to spread their hatred.

It’s (not) Coming Home

Image 1: England’s players during the penalty shootout against Italy in the UEFA Euro 2020 final (11 July 2021). Three players from England who missed their spot-kick have faced racist abuse after England’s loss. (Laurence Griffiths, 2021).

The Internet (and specifically social media) has become an integral part of our lives. We talk about many things on the Internet, such as education, science, food, places to visit, etc. One of the most significant topics talked about on the internet is sports. It only takes seconds to see how much impact sports have on social media. Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, has more than 600 million followers on Instagram. LeBron James, probably the most famous NBA athlete right now, also has been followed by more than 150 million people.

According to Greenfly (n.d.), 32% of sports fans use social media platforms while watching live sports. In short, social media has changed the way these people interact while watching the game they love. They no longer have to meet face-to-face to talk about sports; they can have a discussion with those same people, even if they live in different countries.

However, one example of when passion in sports brought the worst out of some fans, especially those who are often online, occurred in 2021. In Euro 2020 (which happened in 2021 because of COVID), Italy won against England 3-2 on penalties after no winner could be determined in 120 minutes of regulation. Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Jadon Sancho, all of whom missed their spot-kicks (and all of them coincidentally dark-skinned) in the final, had been the subject of abuse. This regrettable event prompted many notable people in the football world to release a statement condemning the hate speech made to those players. One of those statements came from Marcus Rashford himself, who apologised for his penalty miss but said that he will not apologise for who he is (ABC, 2021).

“I can take critique of my performance all day long, my penalty was not good enough, it should have gone in but I will never apologise for who I am and where I came from.”

– Marcus Rashford, player of England National Team

Thankfully, the police were quick to arrest the man responsible for the abuse. BBC (2022) reported that Justin Lee Price, a 19-year-old teenager who posted his hateful thoughts on Twitter, was jailed for six weeks at Kidderminster Magistrates’ Court.

As a sports fan myself, I feel that you should be allowed as a fan to critique your favourite athletes but should only be restricted to the context of performance. You invested your time (and most likely, money) into watching your favourite team; of course, you can feel some disappointment when they are not playing to your expectations. But fans who abuse these players and hate them based on their race, colour, religion, or any other factor that they have no control over, is too much.

Those factors were not, are not, and will never be relevant to how they perform on the pitch, so why do we focus on them? Even if they were born with a different colour or believe in a different faith than they do right now, it still would not change the fact that they did not play well, so it is absurd from my point of view to abuse them based on those factors. For me, these people are not actual sports fans. They are just haters who wait for an opportunity for their target to slip up or have a bad day to put their bad opinions to the public.

So how can the government (or internet governance) make online communities a better place?

Government’s Role

Challenges of regulating online content

Bromell (2022) mentioned that the challenge of regulating contents scattered across the internet is that there are 4 competing principles in internet governance which are:

  • Maintain a free, open and secure internet;
  • Prevent abuse of the internet that harms individuals and communities and damages democracy;
  • Provide appropriate checks and balances on the use and abuse of the internet for commercial purposes; and
  • Avoid and discourage regulation that governments may abuse for the purposes of surveillance, censorship and suppression of dissent.

While platforms have some kind of self-regulation on what content can be posted on them, there are questions regarding the bias and transparency of their content moderation. As a private company, it will be in their interest to pursue profit and revenue, and this may compromise their policy regarding content regulation.

Some countries have taken steps to control what information can be accessed by their citizens. Zucchi (2022) reported that since 2009, China has famously banned the use of Twitter, Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube to control and regulate content its citizens can access on the internet. In North Korea, Burgess (2023) revealed that for most of the citizens, the internet might as well not exist as it is only accessible by a few thousand members of hermit kingdom’s society.

This kind of surveillance is a bit overboard. Instead, I feel like it restricts freedom of expression by limiting the amount of information people can get from the Internet, harming their ability to have a broader perspective of our world.

Centralised or Democratic Governance?

This is where the discussion starts. Does the Internet, which was made to unite people without distance and time barriers, need to be governed by one institution or by each country? There are some pros and cons to each method, which I will delve into below.

If the internet (and the rules of the internet) are governed by one institution or one country, it may lead to quicker decision-making on issues like the one I mentioned above. There will only be one rule that has to be obeyed by every single internet and social media user, and those who violate them can be prosecuted efficiently. However, it can lead to a centralized power and may ignore specific regional needs and contexts.

The other method, which is the one we use right now, better reflects the diversity of the internet. It is also more democratic, and because each country has a stake in the internet, it may lead to more innovations. However, cases like online harassment are more challenging to tackle, especially if the victim and the perpetrator live in different countries, which may have different perspectives regarding the balance of free speech and online harassment.

In my opinion, we do not need a single institution to govern the Internet because it limits innovations and is susceptible to one country having all the power. National governments should not assert that they have the only say in establishing public policy for the Internet (Mueller et al., 2005). We need stronger cooperation between countries that are impacted by each case of online harassment, especially between countries on different continents.

In The England national team’s case, the perpetrator was swiftly taken care of because he also originated in England, but what would the actions be if they lived in another country or continent? There has to be a regulation in place that is agreed upon and observed by participating countries. This regulation must clearly state what constitutes hate speech and what countries should do if they harbour the perpetrator of hate speech. For me, the cases must be publicized to ensure transparency and to make internet users think twice before putting their thoughts on social media.

One reference that can serve as a guideline in creating a unified rule of ethics for the Internet is the recommendation from the Council of Europe (2022), which (among other things) ordered every member to specify and define expressions of hate speech that are subject to criminal liability and ensure that there are mechanisms in place for people to report potential cases of hate speech. The recommendation also emphasized the importance of creating a shared understanding of the concept of hate speech so they can find the right balance between free speech and hate speech.


The sports community is one of the places where online harassment is a complex topic to tackle because there are differing views regarding where to draw the line between free speech and straight-out harassment. For the role of government in protecting the users of the internet against hate speech, there is no need for one single institution. Still, cooperation between countries across the globe is required to ensure effective sanctions against those who post their hateful opinions for the public to see. If a global rule on internet ethics is implemented and observed worldwide, it will not be long before we see an improvement in online experience, especially in sports communities that we love.


ABC News. (2021, July 13). Marcus Rashford makes emotional statement amid online racial abuse of England players who missed Euro 2020 penalties. ABC News.

BBC News. (2022, March 30). Man who sent Marcus Rashford racist Euro 2020 final tweet jailed. BBC.

Bromell, D. (2022). Regulating free speech in a digital age. In Springer eBooks.

Burgess, M. (2023). The bizarre reality of getting online in North Korea. WIRED.

Council of Europe. (2022, May). Recommendation CM/Rec(2022)16[1] of the Committee of Ministers to member States on combating hate speech.

Flew, T. (2022). Regulating platforms. Polity.

Greenfly. (n.d.). Social media in sports: driving fan engagement. Greenfly.

Mueller, M., Internet Governance Project, Klein, H., Hofmann, J., McKnight, L., & Cogburn, D. L. (2005). Political oversight of ICANN: A briefing for the WSIS summit. In Concept Paper [Report].

United Nations. (n.d.). What is hate speech? | United Nations.

Vogels, E. (2021). The State of Online Harassment | Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech.

Zucchi, K. (2022). Why Facebook is banned in China and how to access it. Investopedia.

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