Homophobia in pro-sports is a big problem: we’ve got a long way to go

April 25th, 2016 by Michael Hackl

While sitting in the penalty box during the third period of the April 19 playoff game between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, Andrew Shaw of the Blackhawks shouted what appeared to be a homophobic slur at somebody on the ice.  After the game, Shaw was asked what he had said and answered “emotions are high … I don’t know what I said.”  Twitter comments on the incident ranged from those that took issue with Shaw’s apparent acts to others that, unfortunately, suggested that what had happened was no big deal.  Let’s be clear – it is a big deal, and should be treated as such.

While this particular incident is itself a problem that needs to be addressed, it is not the only instance where homophobia has reared its ugly head in the sports world.  In 2012, Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar wore eye black on which a homophobic slur was written in Spanish.  In a game in 2011, Kobe Bryant made a homophobic slur directed at a referee.  Earlier this year, Rajon Rondo of the Sacramento Kings directed a homophobic slur at referee Bill Kennedy, who later came out as gay; Rondo later said that his comments were made “out of frustration during the heat of the game,” and that they “were not meant to offend anyone,” but it is hard to see how he could think his comments would not offend.  Commenting on the incident, San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popowich said that he was not surprised to hear about Rondo’s comments because comments like that happen “all the time” in the NBA.  And in 2014, highly touted college football player Michael Sam announced that he is homosexual.  A number of NFL executives and coaches interviewed by Sports Illustrated after Sam’s announcement unanimously expressed the opinion that Sam would be drafted later than had been expected as a result of his announcement. “To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace,” a player personnel assistant told the magazine, “It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room.” An assistant coach said, “There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that. … It’s going to be a big distraction.”

What these players seem to forget is that they are idolized and emulated by countless young people who want to follow in their footsteps.  When players in youth sports see their idols behaving in these ways, then saying that it was a joke, or was done in the heat of the moment, the message is relayed that such behaviour is acceptable as part of the game.  This is not the message that needs to be sent, especially when LGBT youths are more likely to be bullied, to miss school or drop out due to being bullied and feeling unsafe, and to commit teen suicide than the youth population at large.  Youth sports is a place where young people should feel safe to participate and strive to reach their potential; they should not be made to feel that they have to lie about who they are in order to fit in or avoid bullying.

A recent study, “Out on the Fields,” found that over 80% of the Canadians that took part in the survey witnessed or experienced homophobic behaviour in sports.  Almost 75% of the people surveyed said that “youth sports is not a safe or welcoming place for the LGB community.”   There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence of individuals playing sports who were discriminated against because of their sexuality.  Turning back to the Andrew Shaw incident, sportswriter Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune, who is himself homosexual, wrote on twitter that while he likes Shaw and has a good relationship with him, “what he said …  is inexcusable and is one of the reasons why gay athletes everywhere stay closeted and often live lives of torment.”

Pro athletes, whether they like it or not, are role models for many young people, and even adults, who look up to them.  Homophobia is not the only problem that faces sports.  But it is a big one and it deserves the same attention as instances of other types of discriminatory behaviour.  It is hard to imagine that if a player made a racial slur, then offered, as part of their explanation for their behaviour, that it was done in the heat of the moment, that many people would be suggesting that it was no big deal.  Why should homophobic slurs or behaviour be treated any differently?  The short answer is that they shouldn’t.  What can we do about it?  We can express our disapproval of such behaviour, through discussions among our friends and colleagues or through social media, and we can stop apologizing for such behaviour or accepting that it is not a big deal if it is in the heat of the moment.  We can also be aware of the problem and help those who spread awareness, like organizations such as You Can Play.  The situation is better than it used to be, but there is still a long way to go.

Further, many of us have legal obligations to protect others from this sort of discrimination.  The Ontario Human Rights Code provides that everybody has the right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods, facilities, accommodation and employment “… without discrimination because of … sexual orientation, gender identity, [or] gender expression …” and to be free from harassment in the workplace or harassment from their landlord or other occupants of their buildings because of “… sexual orientation, gender identity, [or] gender expression …”.  Housing providers, service providers and employers are among those who have to take steps to ensure that their employees, members and clients are protected from this sort of discrimination.  This task is already difficult enough, but it becomes even more difficult in situations where high profile and respected individuals such as pro athletes make these sorts of comments, setting an example that many others may follow.

However, there are steps that can be taken that will meet two very important goals: protecting your employees, members and clients from such discrimination, and protecting yourself in those situations when despite your best efforts such discrimination occurs.  It is important to obtain good advice on the steps to take to meet those goals, implement those measures, and follow through with them if discrimination occurs.  At Iler Campbell LLP, we are well equipped to provide advice on human rights issues to housing providers, charitable organizations, service providers, employers and other organizations, including advice as to the policies and procedures to have in place to guard against discriminatory incidents and the steps to take to address them appropriately if they should occur.  Please contact us for further information.

Filed in: Human Rights

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