Australian sport blasted for ’empty promises’ over action on homophobia

Australian sport blasted for ’empty promises’ over action on homophobia

Ian Roberts, the former rugby league player, has condemned Australia’s main sporting bodies for making “empty promises” to eliminate homophobia, as a collection of groundbreaking new studies reveal ongoing harm to young LGBTQ+ people in sport.

A special issue of international journal Sport Management Review released on Wednesday is devoted to LGBTQ+ issues and finds sports leaders have not upheld their responsibility to end discrimination.

That is despite a timeline of academic research and other work dating back 50 years, all of which similarly concluded homophobic attitudes and behaviours are common in sport and harmful to all athletes, regardless of sexuality and gender equality.

It coincides with the release of two separate Monash University studies that shed light on the high number of LGB adolescents who hide their sexuality from teammates and the extent of homophobic language in male sport.

Two of the Sport Management Review studies, one by Monash and the other by Western Sydney University, report the commitments made by sports around the world have not been followed with meaningful action.

Both describe largely superficial responses designed to generate publicity or revenue, and conclude LGBTQ+ diversity will continue to be ignored after the Covid-19 pandemic unless political, public and corporate pressure drives action.

“I’m getting very frustrated by the lack of action on this issue and all the empty promises,” said former Australia and State of Origin representative Roberts. “I can’t tell you how many sport CEOs and board members have told me they think ending homophobia in sport is important and they want to help.

“In 2014, all the CEOs of Australia’s major sports signed a formal commitment to eliminate homophobia. They received a lot of great media attention but they clearly have not followed through on their commitments.

“I’m not sure how to drive this issue forward. We need to find a way to get the guys who lead sport in Australia and around the world to care about this problem. Perhaps it would help if the government and major sponsors put pressure on the governing bodies and leagues. We can’t keep ignoring this problem and hoping it will be fixed by time.”

One of the separate Monash studies analysed survey responses from 1173 lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents aged 15-21 across Australia, New Zealand, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Ireland.

It found 82% of young men and 77% of women tried to hide their sexuality from at least some of their teammates. Just 15% of Australian LGB youth were out to everyone on their team.

Overall, 52% of men and 36% of women had been a target of homophobic behaviour in team sports. LGB young people who came out, even to just some of their teammates, were significantly more likely to report they had been the target.

Roberts, who in 1995 became rugby league’s first openly gay player, said stories like those of recently out former Australian rugby union player Dan Palmer and NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan demonstrate “experiences seem to be getting worse, not better”.

“I’m devastated to learn that gay kids who come out to their teammates are the most likely to be the target of homophobic abuse,” Roberts told Guardian Australia.

“This is exactly the opposite of what should be happening and what I expected … I’m very proud of these kids for having the courage to come out at such a young age and very disappointed that the adults around them don’t seem to have the courage to ensure these kids are safe.”

Despite 15% of high-school students saying they are not heterosexual, only three gay males have come out in Australian professional sport. The AFL is the only major professional sport in the world to have never had a gay or bisexual male player come out. Women’s sport is often perceived to be more accepting, but many athletes still hide their sexuality.

Previous research indicates victims of sexuality-based bullying are more likely to self-harm and attempt suicide.

The other separate Monash study investigated why teenage and adult male athletes use homophobic language in sport. It surveyed all six teenage male rugby union teams (97 players, ages 16-18) playing in South Australia, and took an international sample of elite ice hockey players from all eight Australian ice hockey league teams (148 players, ages 16–31).

More than half the rugby and hockey players (53.8%) self-reported using homophobic slurs in the previous two weeks and even more (69%) reported their teammates had used this language. It found no statistical relationship between homophobic attitudes and the use of homophobic language.

“We found most male athletes use homophobic language to conform to the behaviour of others around them,” said co-author Nick Faulkner, a senior research fellow at Monash’s BehaviourWorks Australia.

“They perceived there was an expectation to use this language when they were playing sport.”

Palmer, who in October became the first Wallabies player to come out as gay, said “homophobic language is often used as banter or to get a laugh in team environments”.

“It is important to understand the impact such language can have, especially on younger people trying to find their way,” Palmer said. “Homophobic language further isolates closeted teammates and signals to aspiring gay athletes that they will not be accepted.

“Most people don’t like homophobic language. It is both uncomfortable to use and to hear so, with some effort and focus, I think we can stop this behaviour quickly.”