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Sport authorities must show 'zero tolerance' to homophobic abuse

12 February 2017

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee report says fans who display homophobic attitudes at matches should face immediate, lengthy bans on attending games. It says the sports authorities must adopt a zero tolerance approach to homophobic abuse at all levels of sport.

Football clubs in particular are not doing enough and should take a tougher approach, issuing immediate one to two year bans in the first instance to indicate clearly that homophobic behaviour will not be tolerated. Match officials should have a clear duty to report and document any kind of abuse at all levels: this should apply to not just officials in the professional leagues who hear abuse from spectators but should filter down to youth level, for example, if officials hear homophobic terms used by parents.

Homophobia a "bigger problem in football" than racism

In 2012, the former Culture, Media and Sport Committee's report on racism in sport found that homophobia was emerging as a "bigger problem in football than racism and other forms of discrimination". Research at the time found that 25% of fans thought that homophobia was present in football, compared to 10% who thought that racism was. A recent Stonewall survey reported that 72% of football fans have heard homophobic abuse, and it is notable that there is not one "out" footballer in the men's professional game.

The Committee found some examples of good practice for example in rugby: when Welsh international rugby referee Nigel Owens was subjected to 'foul-mouthed, racist, homophobic abuse' at a match the two fans involved were banned for two years and ordered to pay £1,000 to a charity of Owens' choice.

Attitudes in sport out of step with wider society

But despite this type of positive action by a number of governing bodies, attitudes in sport across all levels - and especially in football - are out of step with wider society. The ever-increasing LGB visibility within sport is welcome and many sports, particularly rugby, have made significant progress in this respect, and in taking a hard line on homophobic behaviour. But homophobic abuse is still too often allowed to pass unchallenged.

The Committee was particularly disturbed by the inclusion of Tyson Fury in the shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year and this became one of the spurs for conducting the inquiry. The inclusion of Tyson, despite a series of violently homophobic remarks, is symptomatic of homophobia not being taken seriously enough in sport, or the media that shows it. The Committee has queried the judgment of BBC executives in including Fury on the shortlist, and was very dissatisfied with BBC Director-General Lord Hall's response to the controversy.

Youth sports not 'supportive and safe' for LGB participants

The Committee notes a particular problem in schools and youth sports, with serious concerns over the effects of low participation among LGB youth on their mental and physical health and well-being. The 'Out on the Fields' study—the first international study into homophobia in sport—found that 73% of survey participants did not believe that youth sports were a 'supportive and safe' place for LGB participants. In the long-term, it is very likely that a number of sports have been robbed of talent, and young players and athletes may feel that they have to choose between coming out or continuing to participate in their sport.

Committee recommendations

National Governing Bodies should commit to anti-homophobic campaigns

The Committee also says National Governing Bodies should step up their commitment to anti-homophobic campaigns, giving greater funds and resources to visible interventions like Stonewall's  Rainbow Laces campaign. This should incorporate television and cinema advertisements, screens at football matches and outside advertising such as bus-stop advertisements. This must be a sustained effort over a significant period of time, rather than a short-term commitment. There is also a role for "straight allies" - straight players who act as champions for the cause and participate in education programmes and campaigns.

Increase support for athletes who want to come out

In British football, where there are currently no openly gay male players in the professional leagues, more should be done to show support for athletes who want to come out. This could include clubs and major sportswear brands stating their support for gay athletes and writing into their agreements with players, that there would be no termination or downgrading of their contracts as a result of a player coming out.

Chair's comment

Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"From the evidence we have received in this inquiry, we believe that there are many gay athletes who have not come out, because they are frightened of the impact this decision will have on their careers, and the lives of the people they love. That is not acceptable and should not be tolerated. 

Coming out is a personal and private decision and no sportsperson should feel under pressure or feel 'forced' to come out, but sports authorities must create an environment, in the stadium and the locker room, where players and athletes at all levels feel it is a choice they can make, and that they will be supported and accepted if they do.

More needs to be done by the authorities to address both the overt and latent homophobia that exists within sport. Homophobic abuse in sports grounds is just as intolerable as racist behaviour and should dealt with as severely. Clubs should also look to their own internal culture, and consider whether it would appear supportive to gay athletes.

Sports clubs are responsible for the wellbeing of their players: coaches and managers must make it clear that homophobic language cannot be used without comment or redress, just as they should not allow racist behaviour to go without reprimand.

Sanctions appear to be left to the discretion of the club or governing body involved:  a zero-tolerance approach to the use of all homophobic language and behaviours must be implemented with standardised sanctions across all sports. This tougher approach across the board would go some way towards sending a clear message that the issue will no longer be ignored.

The main corporate sponsors also have a duty to assure sportspeople that they will not lose their sponsorship as a result of coming out. Major sponsors should come together to launch an initiative in the UK to make clear that, should any sportsperson wish to come out, they will have their support."

Further information

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