In a survey of 9,500 people from the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand, 80% of all sports participants “said they have witnessed or experienced homophobia in sports.” The results of this survey, “Out On The Fields”, the first international study on homophobia in sports, speak to a culture of fear and intimidation in sports that prompt many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to hide their sexuality.
Among all the countries surveyed, the U.S. had the highest percentage of gay men reporting that they had received verbal threats in a sports environment. Using the “inclusion score” created by the research team, the U.S. ranked last.
Those who follow U.S. sports will probably find few surprises in the survey results. Few gay, lesbian, or bisexual athletes who compete on a professional level are willing to share their sexual orientation publicly for fear of harming their careers. In 2014, Michael Sam, an All-American defensive lineman from Missouri, came out of the closet to ESPN. Subsequently he was drafted into the NFL to play for the Rams, making him the first openly gay player in the league.
But there is a long way to go in making the professional sports arena a safe place for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. “For the most part, the gay revolution is over, and now we’re in the gay evolution,” said Howard Bragman, public relations expert. “And evolutions move slower than revolutions.” Bragman has helped players like Sam communicate with the public while coming out. His client list includes former NFL player, Esera Tuaolo, former NBA player John Amaechi, and former WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes.
The fact that sexual orientation still continues to be an object for discussion and at times, ridicule and contempt, is proof that sports have not achieved equality for all their participants. Just two weeks ago, a NBA referee, Bill Kennedy, became the object of an anti-gay slur by Sacramento Kings point guard, Rajon Rondo. Kennedy subsequently made a public statement that he was gay and the league expressed full support for him.
Organizations like Athlete Ally work on public awareness campaigns, educational programming and tools and resources to foster inclusive sports communities. They have Ambassadors in collegiate, professional and Olympic sports who work to foster “allyship” in their athletic environments. The programs include Ambassadors from over 80 colleges and over 100 professional athletes. Their founder, Hudson Taylor, a collegiate wrestler, founded the organization after witnessing homophobic behavior at his college.