Digital death threats in sport: 'There's no space to run'

Cyberbullying has long been a problem for athletes on social media, but for many the issue is evolving into a more sinister reality

Death threats toward athletes and their families are becoming increasingly common (representative photo) (photo: DW)
Death threats toward athletes and their families are becoming increasingly common (representative photo) (photo: DW)


The dopamine hit that social media provides is something many around the world are familiar with. Less familiar is being sent death threats for your performance at work. For professional athletes, this is sadly becomingly an increasingly common reality.

After German ice hockey team Cologne Sharks recently lost 5-4 in a league game, defenseman Moritz Müller, who was awarded a penalty just 70 seconds in for a heavy foul, received a death threat on Instagram. A user first posted a knife and a red drop of blood before writing on the photo of Müller with his three children: "I would kill these worms after such a terrible game of yours."

Sadly, Müller's case is not an isolated one.

South African scrum half Cobus Reinach, who plays club rugby in France, received death threats on social media after the Springboks beat France in a thrilling World Cup quarterfinal last year. After the final, one of rugby union's most famous referees Wayne Barnes received death threats for his performance and just last week, Hellas Verona player Thomas Henry said he had received death threats against himself and his family after missing a penalty.

Anna-Lena von Hodenberg, CEO of HateAid, a nonprofit group that advocates for victims of online hate speech, said in the last five years of consultations at the organization there has "absolutely been an increase in death threats."

Structural support required

Bayern Munich recently ran a campaign on hate speech, but von Hodenberg believes one strong advert is not enough.

"What we see is that even the big teams in football and also other sports, especially in sports that are not as visible, is that the individuals are left alone with this. Nobody is taking care of it," she said.

"The private messages that players receive, there's no psychological support for the families. There is just no infrastructure that keeps dealing with that and a lot of sports clubs say they are supporting their players, but in our consultations we see that if you want to support your players, it's not enough to just do one campaign and put a spotlight on the subject. You really need concrete support."

For von Hodenberg there are a few core issues at play: ease of access to athletes, the contractual obligation many athletes have to be present on social media, minimal consequences and social media platform's control over data.

In 2020, Germany approved a bill criminalizing hate speech on social media sites, but this hasn't led to greater infrastructure of support in sport or made resolution to cases easier. This is in part because in Europe, social media companies such as X, formerly Twitter, and Meta are regulated by European law and the majority of them are headquartered in Ireland. To simply find out the identity of a perpetrator, the police have to go through these channels and that can take months.

"Prosecutors that we work closely with tell us they don't get any information from them, so what prosecutors in Germany do is go to the platforms and say, 'There is illegal content here, a death threat, could you please give us information about the perpetrators that you have, for example, the IP address?' And then the social media companies have a choice to say yes or no. And sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no," von Hodenberg told DW.

What next?

Change won't come fast, but von Hodenberg believes gaining access to the data of the perpetrators would be a big step in the right direction. She added that more public discussion about the topic, more effective measures in law enforcement, more collaboration with the platforms and sports clubs installing a support system for their athletes would also help.

"Sports clubs, the majority are turning a blind eye to that and are still pretending that this is the problem of the players personally, and not a structural problem. They also have a position and a role to play in influencing a shift in sports culture," she said.

Often, sports associations and clubs are more interested in shifting culture through their performances on the field. But this issue isn't just here to stay, it's getting more extreme. Failure to combat this threat will end up affecting not just the performance of athletes, but more importantly their mental health.

"The digital space is so much more invasive because the players have it on their smartphones in the morning, at night, in the most private hour," said von Hodenberg.

"There's no space to run from this anymore. That's the big difference from the analogue world where you could find some space to distance yourself from the hate. Now you can't. It's just there, constantly. This is the big psychological burden that athletes have to endure today."

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Published: 13 Jan 2024, 3:27 PM