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Monday, 2 December 2013

Tom Daley and other Sporting Heroes

Homophobic bullying is endemic in sport.

The truth of this statement is so obvious that it hardly bares stating. Many of us/most of us 
who are coaches and teachers dedicate ourselves to offering life-enhancing experiences through sport, yet operate within a system that is simply not welcoming to lesbian, gay and bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) people.  Sometimes exclusion is stark and frightening. More often, it is more subtle.

On a few, rare occasions, I have seen coaches verbally abusing LGBT players in front of their peers.  When confronted, the coaches gave the same response: surprise.  They were only teasing, they said.  Just messing around.  It is no different from teasing someone about the colour of their hair, or their obesity!  Apparently, adding the phrase 'only joking' renders even the most offensive comment harmless.  If the player cannot take a bit of harmless banter, one told me, then maybe they should consider a different hobby.

Words like 'poof', 'queer' or 'dyke' are casually used in sports clubs to indicate some failure of an individual to meet an unstated, but unquestioned standard of manliness / femininity.  Boys and men who fail to perform in the acceptable manner are told that they "play like a girl".  Girls and women who play well, but without the required degree of femininity, are labelled "butch".  In many sports, a posturing machismo represents the norm against which all other behaviours are judged.  Lesbian, gay and bisexual usually fall outside of this norm.

Some sports are clearly worse than others.  It seems to be that tolerance for different lifestyles is least among the most high profile sports.  For example, when United States international footballer Robbie Rogers came out as gay, he was only the third footballer after England's Justin Fashanu and Swedish midfielder Anton Hysen to have come out. Fashanu killed himself in 1998.

It would be easy, not too depressing to continue this sort of analysis with other sports.

Sport should be a home for everyone.  People of vastly different backgrounds can be brought together in a shared love of a game. Sport offers a shared language that can overcome differences of all varieties.

That is the claim. And at its best, this claim is true.  But the power of sport to include can too easily be corrupted and turned towards exclusion.  When this happens, the power of the group can shift from friendship to alienation to bullying.

Many lesbian, gay and bisexual young people continue to live lives in which one of the most precious aspects of their existence - their sexuality - must be kept secret.  

According to the gay rights charity Stonewall, more than 55% of of lesbian, gay and bisexual school pupils have been bullied.  A 2012 report by Cambridge University found that one in four young lesbian, gay and bisexual people had tried to take their own life.

So, it seems to me, that the fact so many of us in sport continue to tolerate homophobic behaviour is shameful.  Few, I am sure, explicitly support bullying. But many of us implicitly endorse it by failing to challenge it directly, or by taking steps to reduce the chance that it ill arise in the first place.  We tell ourselves that "there is no problem here", or that homophobic comments to individuals are just playing and not serious.  But lesbian, gay and bisexual people tell us that they are serious, they are hurtful, and they reinforce an environment that can end in exclusion, bullying, or suicide.

The revelation by Olympic diver Tom Daley that he is now in a homosexual relationship was an act of remarkable bravery. Tom knows, as all of us in sport know, that such an admission can be risky. He is a public figure, so the statement about his sexuality open to to all manner of hurtful comments.  But he is also a role model for countless young sports people.  His honesty and openness should inspire anyone struggling with personal challenges.

Sporting stars like Robbie Rogers and Tom Daley are inspirations. However, the most powerful role models in the lives of young sporting people are not the elite, but those they meet on a day-to-day basis.  Evidence shows that the most influential people are the coaches, teachers, and older players within the club or team. They are the ones who set the standards of behaviour: by what they say, and by how they act.

The simple fact is that many gay young people will never join a sports club for fear of a homophobic behaviour and bullying.  Those who do may feel they must remain silent about a core aspect of their nature, their sexuality. Sports coaches and teachers are among the most trusted adults by young people.  Young people talk to us about problems at school, with their parents, with their friends, and this places a enormous responsibility on us all.

If we genuinely believe that sport is for all, we need to take the issue of homophobia in sport seriously. It will not go away without a concerted effort from everyone involved, at all levels. But it is coaches and teachers of sport who need to lead the way.


Former rugby international and 'Strictly' star Ben Cohen has launched a charity that focuses specifically on challenging homophobia, especially in sport.  Click on the image below to find out more, and Stand Up against all kinds of bullying.

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