Homophobia is common in schools and sports clubs

Football players
…there are fewer social controls within sport than there are in other areas of life. If you were homophobic in the workplace, the repercussions would be far more severe than if you were to use the same language on a football pitch. Unfortunately, it is common for this sort of behaviour to be accepted within a sporting context.
Dr Ian Jones
A new study has revealed that homophobia – especially in the form of homophobic language – is common amongst schoolchildren and sports players. A team of Bournemouth University (BU) students, whose research was commissioned by ‘Time for Change – Now!’ founder Alan Mercel-Sanca, visited schools and sports clubs to explore the prevalence of homophobia.

The academics discovered that more than half of school-age pupils hear homophobic language on a daily basis. Moreover, one in five respondents admitted to hearing homophobic language at their sports clubs.

The research was conducted by BU Sport Management students John Bryson, Jenifer Kesik, Sam Brooks, Will Jay, Mark Wardman and Char Catley. The team notes that in many schools and sports clubs, rules and punishments for the use of homophobic language are not in place. The findings also draw attention a lack of school-based education regarding the issue. Tackling homophobia, the students argue, is not always seen as a priority within the sporting arena. Consequently, discriminatory behaviour is sometimes left unchallenged or ignored.

"Some people see it as culturally acceptable to use homophobic language," Dr Ian Jones, Associate Dean for Sport at BU, told ScienceOmega.com. "Our researchers noticed a big difference between the ways in which people view homophobia and racism, for example. The use of racist language is taboo. It’s socially controlled in the sense that if somebody were to make a racist comment to one of their fellow pupils or team mates, that person would be reported and dealt with. Racism is seen as something that is very serious, and rightly so. Homophobia, on the other hand, has a tendency to be viewed as being ‘a bit of a laugh’. One frequently used word was ‘banter’. If one of your peers makes a mistake, it is seen as acceptable to call them gay. There is a widespread misapprehension that this sort of behaviour is harmless. Consequently, it isn’t taken as seriously as it should be."

Climate of homophobia

At present, there are no openly gay football players in the Barclays Premier League, and less than one per cent of the athletes who competed at the London 2012 Olympic Games described their sexual orientation as homosexual. Professional sportspeople frequently cite this climate as one of the main obstacles to a more open discourse on sexuality. More than half of the schoolchildren surveyed reported witnessing homophobia on a daily basis. Perhaps even more worryingly, a similar number of pupils admitted to using homophobic language themselves. As Dr Jones explained, it is possible that the prevalence of homophobia is actually higher than the study’s results suggest.

"The million-dollar question is whether people are underreporting this sort of behaviour," he said. "This represents one of the most significant difficulties when undertaking research of this kind. You have to weigh up what people say against what they actually do. I think that it’s pretty safe to assume that individuals have a tendency to underreport their own homophobic behaviours. This could, therefore, be more of a phenomenon than our findings suggest. Even if you design your research carefully and include elements such as anonymous questionnaires, some people probably won’t provide completely truthful responses. They will underreport their use of homophobic language. Conversely, they might not even realise that they are using it in the first place. They could just see it as ‘banter’."

Exploring the wider context

Whilst the true level of homophobia might be a matter for debate, the team’s findings demonstrate that a significant issue does exist. Is this a problem that is confined to schools and sports clubs, or is homophobia endemic within other areas of society?

"For a number of reasons, I think that homophobia is probably more prevalent in sport than it is in other areas," Dr Jones replied. "Firstly, a masculine culture exists across many different sports. Because of this culture, people believe that calling somebody ‘gay’, for example, has a greater impact than saying something that doesn’t make reference to their sexuality. Secondly, there are fewer social controls within sport than there are in other areas of life. If you were homophobic in the workplace, the repercussions would be far more severe than if you were to use the same language on a football pitch. Unfortunately, it is common for this sort of behaviour to be accepted within a sporting context."

I went on to ask Dr Jones whether conflicting messages from governing bodies are hampering efforts to eradicate discriminatory behaviour from sport. For instance, in 2011, FIFA President Sepp Blatter received widespread criticism after suggesting that racist incidents between players could be solved ‘with a handshake’. Are views like this too common within the upper echelons of sport?

"At present, yes," said Dr Jones. "I think that this is true for a number of reasons. In terms of the Blatter incident, I think that he was trying to protect the ‘brand’ of football. Nobody wants their brand to be painted with racism or homophobia. Blatter is part of a commercial entity: he is working to protect that entity and to make it attractive both to sponsors and fans.

'Not seen as a priority'

"We must also face the fact that tackling homophobia is not seen as a priority within sport," he continued. "One of the things that we struggled with during the course of our research was simply getting people to talk about the subject. Some respondents were uncomfortable acknowledging the problem, but one governing body – which I won’t name – actually stated that it wasn’t a priority. There is a tendency for homophobia to get sidetracked because people see racism as the issue of the moment. Consider the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign. I would imagine that the vast majority of football fans think that this is an initiative solely concerned with eradicating racism from the game. I doubt that very many would say that it deals with homophobia as well; the emphasis is on race. Homophobia is seen as less important: a lesser crime, if you like."

So what can be done to convince sport’s governing bodies that this is an issue that deserves to be taken seriously? How might the problem of homophobia be moved further up the sporting agenda?

"First of all, we need to find out how prevalent this problem is – across all levels of sport," said Dr Jones. "Our findings show that there is a problem and that it is a significant one. We need to devise a way to methodologically uncover the full extent of homophobia within sport. We must also engage with those outside of sport: perhaps people who’ve been put off or who have left sport because of this type of treatment.

Improving education

"Secondly, we must improve education around the subject," he continued. "Players should be taught not to refer to one another using homophobic language. This message needs to be integrated within the fabric of sport education in exactly the same way that racism is at present. Homophobia is an important issue and people need to treat it seriously."

Finally, I asked what Dr Jones and his BU colleagues intend to do next. As he explained, his team needs to secure funding so that they can further develop their research.

"Our initial investigations have opened up a range of potential research avenues," he concluded. "Our next step is to secure funding so that we can conduct exactly the type of research that I’ve just been talking about. We also want to carry out work that will facilitate future education in this area. Of course, I’m talking about an ongoing process. It’s going to take a fair amount of time before we see huge amounts of progress. However, I am absolutely confident that this is an achievable goal."



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