The continuing efforts to tackle homophobia in sports

The continuing efforts to tackle homophobia in sports
Friday, 30 September 2016

The Olympic Charter claims that the practice of sport is a “human right” and that every individual should have the right to participate without “discrimination of any kind”.1 A bold and utopian statement, but one that reflects a tolerant, functioning and progressive society. 

Competitive team sports remain a microcosm of a society’s values. Sport can demonstrate the best values - fair play, comradely and passion behind a united aspiration, and the worst - hooliganism, violence and racist/homophobic discrimination or harassment. Equality in sport is a reflection of an equal society. Therefore it follows that sport is not detached from society or the law, just for the fact that it is primarily considered to be a social or recreational activity. 

This article examines the continuing efforts to tackle homophobia in sports. Specifically it looks at:

  • What is homophobia?
  • Homophobic crowd chanting
  • Comments of Heavyweight Champion Tyson Fury
  • Moving forward with collective responsibility and collective action
  • Creating positive role models
  • Practical steps and recommendations


What is homophobia?

Before addressing the development in combating homophobia in sport it is important to examine what it is. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines homophobia as “an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people”. Michael Messner, an American sociologist, considered the extent of homophobia in the sports world to be “staggering”,2 but until recent years, both the law and the sports industry have primarily focused on how to best tackle and remove racism from sport - a totally legitimate and worthy cause in its own right – but at times the fight against other forms of discrimination can be forgotten.

Gwen Knapp, a reporter writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, went one step further and argued that professional athletes, specifically those participating in American football and basketball worked in the “last vast frontier of intolerance”.3 

Justin Fashanu, former England under-21 football player, triggered debate in 1990 when he became the first British footballer to publically disclose that he was gay. Described by Brian Clough as a “bloody poof”,4 he was publically disowned by John Fashanu, his younger brother, who described him as “an outcast”.5 Justin tragically committed suicide in 1998. Whilst Justin’s story opened this issue up to public and media discussion, the true extent of homophobia in sport, is only now being recognised by the wider industry as unacceptable. 

Homophobia in sport presents itself in two main forms of abuse - discrimination and harassment, but the distinction between these two is not always clear. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is the unfair treatment, or deprival of normal benefits to any individual because of their sexuality or perceived sexuality. It is the failure to treat all people equally. Claire Williams, journal author and academic at the Ohio State University, considered harassment based on sexual orientation to be “identifiable by the presence of a hostile environment created through words, conduct or actions that cause substantial emotional distress and serves no legitimate purpose”.6 The presence of such hostile environment can often be subtle and, given that harassment is largely based on how one individual is made to feel by another, highly subjective. 


Homophobic crowd chanting

One of the most visible forms of harassment is crowd chanting, typically used against players of the opposing team with fans targeting any aspect of a player’s character or attributes in an attempt to put them off their game. When combined with homophobia, it can amount to bigotry and, in some countries such as the United Kingdom, may lead to criminal prosecution.7

recent report by Brighton & Hove Albion Supporters Club and the Gay Football Supporters’ Network concluded that Brighton fans received homophobic chants and other forms of abuse in over 70% of away matches8. Chants ranged from “does your boyfriend know you’re here”,9 to “you’re just a town full of faggots”.10

Secret filming by Channel 4 at the Wigan v Brighton game on 23 November 2013 unveiled a barrage of homophobic abuse directed at the Brighton fans within minutes of kick-off, including “we can see you holding hands”, “gayboy” and “it’s a long way home, you faggots”.11 Whilst one family were evicted from the grounds, the abuse continued throughout the game – a clear sign that the current regulations are not sufficiently enforced and/or do not operate as an effective deterrent to prevent homophobic chanting. 



Comments of Heavyweight Champion Tyson Fury

Tyson Fury didn't make many friends in 2015, although he made a few enemies – 139,553 at the time of writing, who responded to the petition calling for his removal from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY).

In addition to his outspoken and deeply offensive views on homosexuality, he was branded a sexist after commenting that “a woman’s best place is in the kitchen and on her back”. Fury only made things worse by commenting that fellow SPOTY nominee Jessica Ennis-Hill “slaps up good…when she’s got a dress on she looks quite fit”.12 

2012 Olympic Gold Long jump winner, Greg Rutherford initially quit the award citing concerns aboutsharing a stage with somebody that had views that are so strongly against my own”,13 but the BBC convinced Rutherford to stay.14 On 20 December 2015, Tyson left the awards empty handed, but with a total of 72,300 votes, he finished ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Mo Farah. With just 8,000 more votes, he would have overtaken Ennis-Hill and taken home third place with a trophy finish on stage.

Whilst we would prefer Fury to air his views in private, we can’t deny Fury the right to speak freely - that is the point of a liberal society with the benefit of free speech. However, the incident raises questions about the selection process of the BBC for SPOTY that provide platform in which to air such views. One also has to question the role of the media in promoting Fury’s comments.

Before handing the decision across to a public vote, the BBC panel selects their shortlist based on three criteria15:

  1. Reflects UK sporting achievements on the national and/or international stage;
  2. Represents the breadth and depth of UK sports; and
  3. Takes into account 'impact' over and beyond the sport or sporting achievement in question. 

So sporting achievement forms part of the criteria and no one would question that Tyson Fury absolutely qualifies on that side having defeated Wladimir Klitschko to become world heavyweight champion (albeit holding the IBF belt for just ten days). But can the BBC help us understand how he was shortlisted on the basis of a sporting personality competition, taking into account “impact” over and beyond the sport or sporting achievement in question?

During the awards, under the pressure of the international spotlight, and of course, Gary Linneker’s intense interrogation, Fury appeared to take a U-turn on his beliefs and values. He did apologise, claiming that he never intended to hurt anyone and stating thatit’s all fun and games for me”.16

The above cases demonstrate that, whilst progress is being made in the fight against homophobia, we are not quite there yet; transferring the shift in society onto the pitch and into the boxing ring is still work in progress. 


Moving forward with collective responsibility and collective action

Apathy, or failure to recognise and take action, within the sporting industry is potentially the greatest obstacle to overcome discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation within sport, identified as Hayes as “the last stronghold of acceptable hate”.17 Once this has been overcome there needs to be collective responsibility and collective action. This could take the form of: 

  • Lawmakers working in closer collaboration with sporting regulators, the police, prosecution authorities and government. Given that sports organisers can be held legally responsible for the actions of their representatives and fans, practical and proportional enforcement procedures should be put into place. Effective and visible disciplinary action will act as a deterrent and demonstrate to the sports industry and fan base that discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, like racism, is unacceptable.
  • A culture of “prosecute the individual, discipline the sporting organisation” is emerging with respect to crowd chanting and homophobic language within sporting events. Sports organisers, such as the Rugby Football League are trying different techniques such as suspension of the game or warnings to target those fans who don’t behave by the rules. They are leading the way and should be lauded for their efforts. Sporting bodies have learned that they are responsible for the views of those individuals who represent them and need to take more proactive action to distance themselves from extremist views.


Creating positive role models

Individual athletes, participants and fans all have an ability to challenge views and impact change. Sport needs more individuals to stop, challenge unacceptable behaviour and champion change for the wider community. Positive role models, when supported by underlying legal framework and protection, can operate as an incredibly effective tool for change, by challenging the status quo. 

Robbie Rogers, an openly gay footballer at LA Galaxy, considered that, “things will change….I just don’t know when and how long it will take”.18 Indeed, there are already signs that sport is changing. The number of openly gay sportsmen and women is increasing and sporting organisation and regulators are catching up with the law on equality. 


Practical steps and recommendations 

  • Sporting organisations should implement a non-discrimination policy including specific reference to protection on the grounds of sexual orientation, provide tailored guidance notes relating to the identification of homophobia in the sport and recommend targeted, proportional and practical direction as to how best tackle it. The consequences for those found in breach of the policy should be clearly communicated. There should be a clear reporting procedure and escalation process where complaints can be handled in confidence. Ultimately, if a complaint can be fully and properly resolved within the organisation, this will provide an equitable resolution without the need for legal intervention. Finally, the policy should be enforced – unequivocally, without hesitation and with proper sanctions in place to deter future breach.
  • Sporting organisation should shake off their indifference and actively set the tone that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Regular and effective training should implemented. 
  • On a European level, Member States would benefit from a directive, compelling them to introduce protection on the basis of the sexual orientation regarding the supply of goods and services and to effectively counter hate crime against all members of the LGBT community.
  • Finally, regulators and enforcement agencies should take collective responsibility for tackling homophobia, with a specific emphasis on the police and Crown Prosecution Service to develop policy that is fit for purpose and actively enforce equality legislation already in place.

Nelson Mandela considered that “sport is a right and not a privilege19 and sport has always been a vehicle for fair competition and social change. Law is not divorced from the society in which we operate and has always, whether proactively, reactively or reluctantly, evolved to reflect current thinking in our society, culture and sport.


Sport doesn’t care if you are number one in the world, unemployed, old, a mother, a teenager, boring, straight, transgender, female, autistic, unranked, married, beautiful, a father, ugly, mean, bisexual, lesbian, poor, gay, popular, married, male, rich, blind, black, white, blue, or any other colour of the rainbow, it only cares about how good you are. 

(Slogan on one of the walls at Nike World Headquarters20)


This is an extract from the “Discrimination and Equality” Chapter of the Sports Law Yearbook 2015/16 - UK, Ireland and EU, an eBook publication by LawInSport & British Association for Sport and Law.

The Yearbook reviews developing sports law trends in the UK, Ireland and Europe. It contains legal commentary and analysis from over 50 leading sports lawyers and will be of use to students, academics, athletes, coaches, the media, sports business professionals, in-house counsel and lawyers worldwide.

The Yearbook can be downloaded for free by all LawInSport Plus members with an annual subscription. To enjoy all the perks of being a LawInSport Plus member, please register here.


Manali Kulkarni

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