Rugby: World Rugby's groundbreaking move to shut down online abuse of referees

World Rugby has reportedly taken the groundbreaking initiative of becoming the first sports governing body to take action against extreme online abuse of referees.

According to the UK's Daily Telegraph, World Rugby has passed more than 200 alleged incidents across seven countries to law enforcement and Government agencies, which could lead to criminal convictions.

The action comes after the abuse directed towards referee Wayne Barnes, who allegedly received death threats after his performance in the World Cup final between the All Blacks and the Springboks.

Ben O'Keeffe at the World Cup.
Ben O'Keeffe at the World Cup. Photo credit: Getty Images

Kiwi referee Ben O'Keeffe has also been open about the abuse he's suffered on social media. 

During the tournament in France, World Rugby used a third party data science and artificial intelligence company, Signify Group, to help identify new methods to take action against the online hate speech.

Signify monitored 571 players and 22 match officials across the likes of X and Instagram in 35 languages, including emojis.

Daily Telegraph reports World Rugby findings will be published in the next fortnight.

"I will continue to advocate for referees and work closely with the International Rugby Match Officials association to ensure match officials across the globe not only have a collective voice, but also the appropriate support network for them and their families, particularly as online abuse and threats have become far too regular for all of those involved in the game," said Barnes, after the final - his last game, before retiring. 

While World Athletics and the English Premier League have threatened action over online abuse, any conviction beyond a social media ban would be a world first.

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