– 84 percent witnessed or experienced homophobia in sports, including straight men and women
– American’s most likely to fear discrimination from coaches and officials
– Positive signs of change as more American youth “coming out” while playing sports
On the one-year anniversary of Michael Sam being drafted to the NFL (May 10), the world’s first international study on homophobia in sports has revealed widespread discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans. Of particular note, given Sam’s story and ongoing debate around whether his career was impacted by homophobia, the study found gay male athletes in the U.S. were the most likely to remain in the closet due to fears of discrimination from coaches and officials.
“Out on the Fields,” is the largest study of its kind ever conducted, with 9494 participants of all sexualities including 2064 from the USA (363 straight). The research was conducted by Repucom, and overseen by a panel of seven international experts from six universities on behalf of a coalition of LGBTI sports groups, including the Federation of Gay Games.
LA Galaxy’s Robbie Rogers, one of the world’s only current, openly gay male professional athletes said, “I was disappointed the study found so many people continue to experience and also fear discrimination, but I hope this will start to motivate change at all levels. National and international sports governing bodies, including and NFL and FIFA, need to make committed and determined efforts to ensure LGBTI people feel welcome.”
Young players experience homophobia
While the majority of American participants (78 percent), including young people, believed youth sport was not safe or supportive of LGB people, the study found some positive signs of change. Youth in America are more likely to be “out of the closet” than ever before. Also women were much less likely than men to experience homophobia and American lesbians were far less likely to be “in the closet” than in other countries. The study also found LGB people played more team sports than expected, of those who played in their youth 29 percent of gay men playing American Football, while 33 percent of gay men and 57 percent of lesbians played basketball.
Mitch Eby, a defensive end at California’s Chapman University, was the first openly gay active college football player in the U.S. He came out in March, just weeks after Sam became the NFL’s first openly gay draft prospect.
“I believe that Michael Sam is not on an NFL team because he is gay. He is a good enough football player to be playing in the league. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily because of homophobia with respect to players, instead I think that coaches or owners are reluctant to have him on their team, worried all the attention he might bring would be a distraction,” Eby said.
Eby continued, “Michael Sam showed a lot of courage and bravery. It takes a special person to pave the way for change and he opened the doors for so many more people to be confident with who they are and to know that they can accomplish anything. I think the study has shown we are moving in the right direction with more people coming out in sports but there is still a long way to go and many changes left to be made.”
Other college and former professional football players agreed with Eby that Sam is not playing in the NFL because he is gay and they say openly lesbian, gay and bisexual athletes need support. This includes Conner Mertens, 20, an openly bisexual place kicker at Willamette University in Oregon as well as Brad Thorson, 27, who played briefly with the Arizona Cardinals.
Thorson says Sam inspired him to come out but the perception that he was affected by homophobia by those in charge of the NFL will not help encourage others to come out, particularly because Sam said he “regrets” the decision to reveal his sexuality.
“When I was just starting out I was also worried I’d lose my place on the team more than anything and my chance of playing in the NFL, which Michael Sam seems to have lost,” Thorson said. “The study has found there are a lot of gay men like me who are playing football and other sports and keeping their sexuality secret. I think sports will only change when more gay men decide to become more visible, but to do that they need strong support from coaches, officials and fans.”
Thorson now plays for the Gotham Nights, a gay and inclusive rugby team in New York.
Experts see generational shift
University of Massachusetts Professor Pat Griffin is a pioneer of homophobia in sports research internationally and is considered the “grandmother” of the field. She was one of seven experts on the study’s review panel.
“Unfortunately, Michael Sam’s experience may reinforce these fears of homophobia. I think we have a generation gap which reinforces the fears that LGB athletes have about possible discrimination. Most straight team members are fine with having an LGB teammate, but high school and college coaches, professional sport team owners and officials still have a way to go and this may affect how athletes feel about coming out,” Griffin said.
– 83 percent of gay and 63 percent of lesbian youth (under 22) said they were in the closet to all or some of their team
– 45 percent of gay and 18 percent of lesbian youth who remained in the closet said they feared discrimination from coaches and officials. American gay men were the most likely to fear discrimination from coaches and officials
– 78 percent believe youth sports are not safe and supportive for LGB people
– Spectator stands, followed by school PE classes, were chosen as the most likely places for homophobia. Nearly half of gay men who didn’t play youth team sports said it was due to negative experiences in school PE class
– 84 percent (including straight) said they witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport
– Half of gay men (50 percent) and lesbians (53 percent) and one in three straight men (33 percent) said they had personally been targeted with homophobia
– The most common form of homophobia were slurs such as “faggot” or “dyke”
Dr. Sue Rankin, who recently retired from Pennsylvania State University, is another pioneer of homophobia in sport research who sat on the study’s expert review panel. She was also an athlete and coach.
“As one of the first openly lesbian NCAA coaches in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s, it was important for me personally to see how we have progressed regarding the inclusion of LGB athletes in sports. Frankly, we were all surprised by the extent of discrimination that was reported,” said Rankin.
About the study
Out on the Fields is the first international study and largest conducted on homophobia in sport. The study focused on issues of sexuality which is why LGB is used rather than LGBTI or LGBTQ. It also focused on team sports and the English-speaking countries (U.S., UK, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia).
Global sports market research firm Repucom conducted the research (pro bono), while the study was initiated by organizers of Bingham Cup Sydney 2014 (the world cup of gay rugby) in partnership with a coalition of sports organizations, including the Federation of Gay Games, You Can Play, International Gay Rugby, and the Australian Sports Commission. The study methodology and results were reviewed by a panel of seven academics from six universities including Victoria University (Australia), Penn State University, University of Massachusetts (USA), Brunel University London (UK), University of Winnipeg, and Lavel University (Canada).
Data was collected through an anonymous 10-15 minute online survey which included multiple choice questions and an option to submit more lengthy details of personal experiences. It was promoted through social and traditional media and by sporting organizations, professional athletes, corporations, and government. Around 25 percent of participants were heterosexual.