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Online abuse of referees and players 'reflects developments in wider society', committee hears

The Oireachtas Sports Committee convened to discuss abuse in Irish sport.

Image: Oireachtas TV

ABUSE OF PLAYERS and officials on social media must be tackled as part of efforts to eliminate mistreatment in sport, an Oireachtas Committee heard today.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Sports convened this afternoon for the latest in a series of discussions about abuse in Irish sport.

TDs and Senators heard from Dr Una May, CEO of Sport Ireland; Mary O’Connor, CEO of the Irish Federation of Sport; and Micheál Ó Conaire, a Principal Officer in sport policy at the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.

O’Connor told the committee that an Online Safety Commissioner must have the power to investigate online abuse of referees, officials and players. She also suggested that media outlets should commit to monitoring online abuse in sport.

Her comments came as part of a detailed list of suggestions on how to combat abuse in sport, which included establishing a working group to develop a national code of conduct for Irish sport and appointing a campaign ambassador to reflect a zero tolerance stance on the abuse of referees, officials and players.

She proposed developing a campaign tagline to be used in all internal and external communications, such as “there is no place for abuse in sport in any shape or form – call it out, report it, stop it now”.

Ó Conaire of the Department of Sport echoed the worries about digital abuse, saying that “online abuse towards those involved in sport is an issue of increasing concern” that “reflects developments in wider society”.

He said that an online safety and media regulation bill currently at committee stage in the Seanad will “enable the appointment of an Online Safety Commissioner and provide for the introduction of a regulatory framework for online safety”.

“The Commissioner will oversee the regulatory framework and devise binding online safety codes setting out how regulated online platforms, including social media platforms, will be required to tackle the availability of certain defined categories of harmful online content,” Ó Conaire said.

“In particular, based on Coco’s Law, online content which a person distributes with a threatening or grossly offensive communication about another person, or sends a threatening or grossly offensive communication to another person, will be considered harmful online content,” he said.

“This risk-based systemic regulatory approach as set out in the bill will ensure that we are all, across all sectors, exposed to far less harmful online content and will have an environment in which online services have to respond to and robustly deal with complaints when they are made.”

The committee heard that racism, sexism and other types of discrimination must be tackled in sport to ensure that it is a safe and welcoming environment for all participants.

Sport Ireland has compiled a new diversity and inclusion in sport policy that is due to be published in the coming weeks.

Dr May of Sport Ireland said that the “majority of referees and match officials are voluntary positions and their safety, welfare and protection is a key priority”.

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“Without match officials, our sports cannot take place… volunteering in sport needs to remain an attractive proposition,” Dr May said.

She said that clubs should all have a code of conduct used to handle abuse and mismanagement, including “inappropriate social media posts, unfair treatment and poor sportsmanship and more”.

“Codes of conduct set expectations for everyone involved, from the administrators, coaches and officials to players, parents and spectators.”

Last year, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) told the committee that two-thirds of referees were leaving within two years.

It said that referees had been physically attacked, intimidated and threatened as part of their work at games.

Gerard Perry, chair of the FAI referee committee, told the committee: “Retention of referees remains an issue and the escalating abuse of match officials does not help in this regard.”

“Anecdotally we lose 66% of new referees within the first two years of them completing the referee beginner’s course. Exit interviews inform us that ‘referee abuse’ is the main reason for them stopping.”

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Lauren Boland

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