Children are being harmed by homophobic behaviours in the AFL

Children are being harmed by homophobic behaviours in the AFL

AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou signed a commitment in 2014 to “eradicate homophobia” and to “create an inclusive culture” where gay players feel safe to come out.

Securing his commitment, conducting this Out on the Fields study, and building this website were all part of a series of intiatives driven by LGBTQ+ leaders focused on ending harm to children from homophobia in sport.

Ten years since that commitment was signed... the Australian Football League remains the only major sport in the world to have never had a male player come out as gay or bisexual (current or retired).

For comparison, multiple men have come out in sports such as soccer, rugby union/league, and cricket. Remarkably, over a dozen NFL (American football) players have come out as gay or bisexual since 1975.

The constant use of homophobic language by coaches and teammates is a key factor in why AFL players hide their sexuality.

Researchers have found homophobic language is used constantly at all levels of AFL … from junior football to elite levels. The language is also used by fans. Below is a snapshot of research:

    • 62% of LGBTQ+ fans have witnessed verbal homophobia or transphobia at an AFL game

It’s critical to highlight: when the AFL signed the commitment in 2014, it accepted that these behaviours are common in the sport and they need to be stopped. There is no debate that there is a problem, this has been accepted by sport leaders in Australia and internationally (including by the IOC in a scientific concensus statement). Those who are new to this topic should read the IOC’s concensus statement. 

Why does homophobic language matter?

The constant use of homophobic language causes gay and bisexual boys and men to hide their sexuality and/or stop playing a sport.

Researchers have found gay boys play sports at half the rate of straight boys. This helps to explain the lack of openly gay and bisexual professional AFL players.

Few people know that homophobic language is harmful to the mental health of all boys, regardless of whether they are gay or heterosexual. Researchers have found being the target of homophobic slurs increases the likelihood that all boys will self-harm or attempt suicide.

Homophobic language is particularly harmful for gay kids. Australian research has found gay kids who have been the target of homophobic slurs report self-harming at twice the rate of those who have not been the target of this behaviour (33% vs. 18%). Other research by beyondblue found just hearing homophobic language being used in sport increases the risk that LGBTQ+ kids will attempt suicide.

How does the AFL compare to other sports?

As our timeline illustrates, leaders of four other sport governing bodies signed the same commitment as the AFL’s CEO, in 2014, to “eradicate” homophobia: Rugby Australia, Cricket Australia, Football Australia, and National Rugby League. 

Recent research led by Dr. Ryan Storr, and by others, has found none of the sports have fulfilled their commitments, with homophobic behaviours common in all sports. However, unlike the AFL (and its state governing bodies), as this report outlines, other sports have made investments in solving this problem and they have been working with scientists and LGBTQ+ organisations to find solutions. Some examples are below.

CASE STUDY: CRICKET

Cricket Australia and Cricket Victoria have worked with scientists since 2016 conducting studies examining homophobic behaviours in the sport. They have co-developed programs, resources, and new policies designed to foster a more welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ players and fans. The sport has also provided funding and worked closely with LGBTQ+ charities.

CASE STUDY: RUGBY UNION

Rugby Australia and Rugby Victoria have worked with scientists since 2017 to conduct award-winning research  to understand the drivers of homophobic behaviours. They have developed and tested the effectiveness of multiple programs designed to change these behaviours involving education delivered by professional athletes, and tested the effectiveness of combining pride games with a unique peer education program called “Captaining Inclusion.”

What should the AFL do now?

The AFL has a legal and moral obligation to keep the commitment it signed in 2014 to “eradicate” homophobia.  As the wealthiest sport in Australia, the AFL has the capability to make major investments in solving this problem.

The AFL should build on the research conducted by smaller sports (e.g., Australian rugby union) and should begin working with scientists to co-develop and test new evidence-based approaches to stop the pervasive use of homophobic language in the sport.

It could focus on studying Pride Cups (Games), a very popular initiative pioneered by community Aussie Rules clubs, including by Yarra Glen Football Netball Club, in rural Victoria.

Two studies have found hosting pride games appears to have a powerful impact on the use of homophobic language by players. Public health experts have called for a large-scale study to confirm the effectiveness of hosting pride games in tandem with peer education delivered by captains.

Conclusion from Out on the Fields: The AFL could make a major contribution to global efforts to end homophobia in sport by funding and then actively supporting a high-quality, large-scale study evaluating the effectiveness of pride games and peer-to-peer education in youth sport.

AFL Research Summary Infographics - Left click to download and use

Thirty studies provide strong evidence of need for action

Thirty studies provide strong evidence of need for action

More than 30 studies have found sport organisations and governments largely ignore discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ people in sport

Over the last two decades dozens of academic studies have found strong resistance and little progress in stopping the discrimination that LGBTQ+ children and adults experience in sport.

The LGBTQ+ community has been going in circles on this issue for years.

There are many people in the sport sector who want to do the right thing, but may be unaware of everything done in the past. This means the same ineffective approaches have been repeated.

For example, we have had peer-reviewed scientific evidence for at least a decade that the policies in sport that ban homophobic behaviours are ineffective and need to be completely redesigned. They are complaint-based, which means a child would have to file a formal complaint about their teammates using homophobic banter. The policies also often only prohibit language motivated by hate, whereas this language is used constantly in sport and generally used to conform to social norms.

We created this list of resources to help break this cycle.

List of Research

Baird JA (2002) Playing it straight: an analysis of current legal protections to combat homophobia and sexual orientation discrimination in intercollegiate athletics. Berkeley Women’s Law Journal 17. University of California School of Law: 31.

Brackenridge C, Aldred P, Jarvis A, et al. (2008) Literature review of sexual orientation in sport. Sport England. Available at: https://www.sportengland.org/media/3432/so-summary-final1.pdf (accessed 18 April 2019).

Bury J (2015) Non-performing inclusion: A critique of the english football association’s action plan on homophobia in football. International Review for the Sociology of Sport 50(2): 211–226.

Caudwell J (2011) ‘Does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ The spatiality of homophobia in men’s football culture in the UK. Leisure Studies 30(2): 123–138. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02614367.2010.541481.

Cunningham GB (2015) LGBT inclusive athletic departments as agents of social change. Journal of Intercollegiate Sport 8(1): 43–56. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1123/jis.2014-0131.

Denison E, Bevan N and Jeanes R (2020) Reviewing evidence of LGBTQ+ discrimination and exclusion in sport. Sport Management Review (In Press).

Fletcher G (2015) Does talking about sexuality change the game? A review of processes to promote the inclusion of LGBT people in sport. Melbourne, Australia: Victoria Health Promotion Foundation. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/3068967/Fair_Go_Sport_A_Work_in_Progress (accessed 8 April 2017).

Gardiner S and Riches L (2016) Racism and homophobia in English football: The equality act, positive action and the limits of law. International Journal of Discrimination and the Law 16(2–3): 102–121. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1358229116655648.

Gregory A (2004) Rethinking homophobia in sports: Legal protections for gay and lesbian athletes and coaches. DePaul Journal of Sports Law 2(2): 264.

Heraux C (2019) Homophobia in sport: who can play? In: Kiuchi Y (ed.) Playing on an Uneven Field: Essays on Exclusion and Inclusion in Sports. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., pp. 55–77. Available at: https://www.worldcat.org/title/playing-on-an-uneven-field-essays-on-exclusion-and-inclusion-in-sports/oclc/1103319981.

Hughson J and Free M (2011) Football’s ‘coming out’: soccer and homophobia in England’s tabloid press. Media international Australia incorporating culture and policy 140.

Jeanes R, Denison E, Bevan N, et al. (2019) LGBTI+ inclusion within Victorian sport: A market analysis. Available at: https://research.monash.edu/en/publications/lgbti-inclusion-within-victorian-sport-a-market-analysis (accessed 22 January 2020).

Keane B (2013) European Court of Justice holds football clubs responsible for homophobic remarks of associates in Accept judgment. Sports Law Administration & Practice 20(3): 1–3.

Kerr G, Kidd B and Donnelly P (2020) One step forward, two steps back: the struggle for child protection in Canadian sport. Social Sciences 9(5): 68. DOI: 10.3390/socsci9050068.

Lusted J (2017) Understanding the varied responses to calls for a ‘Rooney Rule’ in English Football. In: Kilvington D and Price J (eds) Sport and Discrimination. First edition. Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society 72. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 44–57.

Magrath R and Stott P (2019) ‘Impossible to implement?’: The effectiveness of anti-homophobia policy in English professional football. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics 11(1). Routledge: 19–38. DOI: 10.1080/19406940.2018.1479284.

Marivoet S (2014) Challenge of sport towards social inclusion and awareness-raising against any discrimination. Physical Culture and Sport. Studies and Research 63(1): 3–11. DOI: 10.2478/pcssr-2014-0017.

Mortazavi SM (2017) Elimination of the locker room closet: analysis of current laws and professional sports leagues’ policies toward gay athletes. Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development 28(4). Available at: https://scholarship.law.stjohns.edu/jcred/vol28/iss4/4.

Mumcu C and Lough N (2017) Are fans proud of the WNBA’s ‘pride’ campaign? Sport Marketing Quarterly 26(1): 42–54. DOI: https://digitalcommons.newhaven.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1004&context=sportmanagement-facpubs.

Oliver P and Lusted J (2015) Discrimination cases in grass-roots sport: comparing Australian and English experiences. Sport in Society 18(5): 529–542. DOI: 10.1080/17430437.2014.976003.

Parry KD, Storr R, Kavanagh EJ, et al. (2021) Conceptualising organisational cultural lag: Marriage equality and Australian sport. Journal of Sociology: 144078332199165. DOI: 10.1177/1440783321991653.

Phipps C (2020) “We already do enough around equality and diversity”: Action taken by student union officers to promote LGBT+ inclusion in university sport. Sociology of Sport Journal: 1–9. DOI: 10.1123/ssj.2019-0119.

Preston SJ, Gregg M and Mendelson L (2013) A new era: understanding the legal rights of homosexual players in professional sports. Westlaw Journal 25(8): 11–14.

Riches L (2013) Gay footballers should not be ‘outed’ in order to prove that discrimination has not taken place. Sport & Law Journal 21(1): 18–21.

Robertson J, Storr R, Bakos A, et al. (2019) ‘My ideal is where it is just jane the cricketer, rather than jane the gay cricketer’: An institutional perspective of lesbian inclusion in Australian cricket. Journal of Sport Management 33(5): 393–405. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1123/jsm.2018-0371.

Seear K and Elphick L (2020) Human rights, gender and sport: lessons from australian rules football. ID 3402228, SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. Available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=3402228 (accessed 22 May 2021).

Shaw S (2019) The chaos of inclusion? Examining anti-homophobia policy development in New Zealand sport. Sport Management Review 22(2). Elsevier: 247–262. DOI: 10.1016/J.SMR.2018.04.001.

Spaaij R, Lusher D, Jeanes R, et al. (2019) Participation-performance tension and gender affect recreational sports clubs’ engagement with children and young people with diverse backgrounds and abilities. PLOS ONE Capraro V (ed.) 14(4): e0214537. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0214537.

Spaaij R, Knoppers A and Jeanes R (2019) “We want more diversity but…”: resisting diversity in recreational sports clubs. Sport Management Review. DOI: 10.1016/j.smr.2019.05.007.

Stefaniuk L and Bridel W (2018) Anti-bullying policies in Canadian sport: An absent presence. The Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 36(2): 160–176. DOI: 10.18666/JPRA-2018-V36-I2-8439.

Storr R (2020a) Commitment, resistance and indifference toward diversity amongst community cricket volunteers. Sport in Society 0(0). Routledge: 1–19. DOI: 10.1080/17430437.2020.1773432.

Storr R (2020b) “The poor cousin of inclusion”: Australian sporting organisations and LGBT+ diversity and inclusion. Sport Management Review: S1441352320301376. DOI: 10.1016/j.smr.2020.05.001.

Storr R, Parry KD and Kavanagh E (2018) “We are a sport for all Australian’s”: exploring the non-performativity of institutional speech acts around LGBTI+ diversity in Australian sporting organisations. In: Conference paper presented at European Association for Sociology of Sport Conference: Sport, Discriminations and Inclusion: Challenges to Face, Bordeaux, France, 2018, pp. 67–67. Available at: https://researchdirect.westernsydney.edu.au/islandora/object/uws:46833/ (accessed 1 March 2019).

Theriault D (2017) Implementation of promising practices for LGBTQ inclusion: a multilevel process. Journal of Park & Recreation Administration 35(3): 123–135.

Williams C (2007) Sexual orientation harassment and discrimination: Legal protection for student-athletes. Journal of Legal Aspects of Sport 17(2): 253–283.

Why Israel Folau’s comments are harmful

Why Israel Folau’s comments are harmful

Major clothing brands pay athletes and sports billions of dollars because they know that professional athletes have a powerful influence on young people.

Researchers have also found teenage American football players who believe an older male they respect endorses homophobic bullying are the most likely to engage in this behaviour.

Other research has found LGBTQ youth who are exposed to discrimination in religious settings are the most likely to self-harm.

This research summary from Monash University provides an overview of the key research which explains why homophobic comments by sports stars are harmful.

50 years of research: girls still avoid sport due to lesbian stigma

50 years of research: girls still avoid sport due to lesbian stigma

Most female rugby players in the UK and Canada say people automatically assume they are lesbians for playing the sport.

The stigma and discrimination that girls and women experience when they play sports such as rugby, cricket, or ice hockey has been extensively documented in hundreds of studies by researchers over the last half-century (see timeline). Recent research suggest little has changed.

Researchers from Australia’s Monash University conducted surveys and interviews with female athletes from a variety of sports in Australia and rugby union players in the UK and Canada. Nearly all (91%) of the rugby players said most people assume they are lesbians for playing the sport. The British research was conducted in partnership with the Harlequins rugby club in response to players continuing to report stigma and discrimination.

A recent BBC documentary highlights how this stigma is particularly challenging for women and girls from non-Anglo backgrounds in developing countries. However, researchers have also found this to be the case in western countries for girls with cultural backgrounds that have outdated norms related to gender.

Challenging Stigma

Recent research on the approach that sports in Australia have taken to address stigma highlighted the work of Cricket Australia as a useful case study for other sport governing bodies. This included commissioning researchers to conduct a detailed mixed method investigation. Though the comments from one female cricket player to the researchers highlights the complexity of addressing these issues:

I’d suggest if Cricket Victoria are keen to increase participation in LGBT community into cricket, I think is has to be seen as a fundamental culture shift in how you deal with the way community cricket clubs are run, the way in which you treat juniors, the way in which Milo Cricket separates women and puts them in pink clothes at the age of six. Good work if you actually have a proper gender identity at six, that’s pretty impressive, let alone having Cricket Victoria tell you which colour clothes to wear. I don’t think it’s something you could do as a tokenistic approach (Female, Player).

Little meaningful action following commitments by sport leaders

Little meaningful action following commitments by sport leaders

Two papers published in the top sport industry scientific journal report little meaningful action to address homophobic behaviour in sport

Six academic studies and a UK Parliamentary Inquiry have found little meaningful action or change following highly publicized commitments by sport leaders in UK, Australia, New Zealand to “stamp out” or “eliminate” homophobic language and create inclusive environments for gay athletes in their sport (see timeline of commitments).

A lack of action by the English Football Association has attracted the most attention in light of the suicide of high-profile player gay Justin Fashanu after he came out. In response to political and public pressure, the FA has made numerous commitments since 2004 to be a leaders on this issue so other players do not feel the need to hide their sexuality and experience discrimination. In 2020, there are currently no openly gay football players.

UK Parliamentary Inquiry

The UK Parliament conducted an inquiry to examine progress on homophobia in 2017. In the final report the parliamentarians wrote:

We are very concerned that, despite the significant change in society’s attitudes to homosexuality in the last 30 years, there is little reflection of this progress being seen in football, particularly in terms of LGB visibility. Indeed, it is often LGB supporters who provide the only LGB visibility at football stadia.

Best of the bunch

Although researchers have found most sport organizations have put few resources toward addressing homophobia or transphobia, two Australian sport governing bodies have received praise for their leadership: Cricket and Rugby Australia.

Cricket was one of the first national governing bodies to dedicate resources to conduct research to develop evidence-based solutions. Relative to other sport bodies, it has made meaningful progress on the lesbian stigma/stereotype that deters women and girls from playing the sport. It is also the first governing body to conduct extensive consultation and research prior to releasing a comprehensive trans and gender diverse inclusion policy.

Rugby Australia has also been praised for it’s stand-alone policy on homophobia which it recently enforced when it terminated the contract of one of the best rugby union players in the world, Israel Folau, months before a world cup, for a series of homophobic and transphobic social media tweets. Rugby Australia also supported the world’s first study which tested the effectiveness of an anti-homophobia program delivered to teenage players, by professional rugby players from the Melbourne Rebels.

Teams that hold pride games use less homophobic language

Teams that hold pride games use less homophobic language

Two studies investigated the benefits of pride games in amateur and professional sport settings and reported nearly identical results.

Key takeaways

  1. These studies are some of the first in the world to investigate the effectiveness of current approaches being used in sport to address homophobic behaviour and attitudes in male team sport.
  2. The studies found teams that hold pride games and receive education use much less homophobic attitudes than other teams in their leagues.
  3. More research is needed to understand why holding these events seems to help drive change to behaviour, but the findings suggest that holding the events in community and collegiate sport settings could be part of the multifaceted approach that is likely needed to stop harmful homophobic language and behaviour in sport.

Two studies have found male athletes on sport teams that hold pride games use much less homophobic language. The first study collected data from an international sample of players (a quarter from North America) on all eight teams in the semi-professional Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL). The researchers compared homophobic language use and attitudes toward gay people of the players on the two teams that have held pride games with those of players on the six teams that have not held the games.

Hockey players on the teams that held pride games used close to 40% less homophobic language.

The hockey study found large, and statistically significant differences in the use of homophobic language between hockey teams. One third (38%) of hockey players on teams that have held pride games self-reported using homophobic slurs such as ‘fag’ in the past ‘two-weeks’ compared to 61% of players on the teams that have not held these games.

A separate study examined the use of homophobic and sexist language by amateur male athletes in three sports (cricket, field hockey, and Australian football). It randomly selected six community sport clubs that have held pride games and received education following a model developed by an Australian charity called Pride Cup (adapted from the approach pioneered by the NHL). These clubs were compared to six clubs that have not held pride games or received education.
https://www.youtube.com/embed/S31XAVfxSQk?autoplay=0&mute=0&controls=1&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fsportinclusion.wixsite.com&playsinline=1&showinfo=0&rel=0&iv_load_policy=3&modestbranding=1&enablejsapi=1&widgetid=1

The study found similar differences in language use to the hockey study, but also found clubs that held the games used less sexist and racist language and had more positive attitudes toward transgender people. The differences seem to be primarily attributable to the pride game participation and education.

For more on the Pride Cup approach watch the video above or to download the handbook: https://pridecup.org.au/

The research can be found in the links provided in the article.