World Rugby Cup final referee Wayne Barnes has slammed online messages of “hate and violence” directed at him and his family and called for action against those responsible in future.
In a no-holds barred interview with the BBC’s Dan Roan, the Old Monmothian said that those who make “threats against your wife and kids... should be held to account and punished”.
His wife Polly reported he had received death threats after the World Cup final, where South Africa beat 14-man New Zealand 12-11, and All Blacks skipper Sam Cane was sent off for a high tackle.
And having refereed 111 Tests, including at five World Cups and the ultimate accolade, the final, the Forester has since retired, saying social media abuse of officials is getting worse.
“Threats of sexual violence, threats of saying we know where you live. It crosses that line,” he told BBC sports editor Roan.
“Social media is getting worse and it’s the sad thing about the sport at the moment. It has not been a one-off.
“I’m on social media for numerous reasons. One is to promote the charitable work I do and to also promote officiating and to explain what a difficult job it is and to humanise it.
“I make that choice, and with that choice comes the ability for people to send messages of hate and violence.”
While he could “compartmentalise” the abuse, it was tougher to deal with when directed at his family, he added.
“If you’re a fan at your local rugby club and you’re sending vile messages to people’s families and making threats, why should you be able to be involved in the rugby family?” he said. “The bit I’ve always struggled with and will continue to struggle with is when that abuse comes to my family.
“I want prosecuting agencies to consider ways of doing that, I want legislation of what social media sites can do to prevent it and I also want governing bodies to consider what they can do.”
He added that the abuse of football referee Anthony Taylor after the Europa League final in May at Budapest Airport “absolutely broke me”.
“It was hugely sad. That could easily have been me and my family after a game,” he told Roan. “I remember watching that video of Anthony and I was devastated because you see the human side.
“People don’t see the human side of refereeing. They think we are the man or woman who turn up on a Saturday afternoon who ruin their day.
“But we are actually human beings with families and kids and to see Anthony on that day absolutely broke me.
“People in positions of responsibility have to realise our actions have consequences. You can’t pick up your phone and abuse people. We need to be better.”
Barnes also said abuse after sending off France captain Antoine Dupont and South Africa flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit in the Springboks’ defeat in Marseille last year – following criticism from South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus – could have fast-tracked his retirement.
“It was a moment where you think ‘why do we do this?’” he said. “But then you sit down and talk about it and realise there is only 10 months to go [to the World Cup] and you don’t want the keyboard warriors to win.”
Barnes, a lawyer, is also an advocate for officiating across all sports and said on the World Rugby website: “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.”
Watch the BBC interview at www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/67349016