By Dirk Smith, MSc, SDL (He/Him).
The issue in regard to the inclusivity and acceptance of gay and lesbian athletes in sports has been heating up lately as we are seeing more athletes in individual sports taking the steps to come out and compete as openly gay. Major professional sports teams in the NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA and MLS have been showing support by hosting various Pride Night events, some of which include prominent displays of rainbow flags, appearances by LGBTQI sports teams and athlete panels. In some cases, funding and sponsoring LGBTQI organizations and events.
In addition, several sports companies and corporations have been working to promote their various Pride products in an effort to show their willingness to be LGBTQI inclusive. Companies such as Nike and Brooks Running Company have even taken it a step further by investing in LGBTQI sports clubs and events to promote LGBTQI inclusion in sports. So, taking it at face value, it seems that sports have come a long way to show it’s more inclusive and accepting of LGBTQI people. Yet, as of June 2020, there is only one openly gay male athlete in the five US major professional sports leagues and zero in Europe who are still on an active roster. Why is that?
While there is an increasing amount of research establishing the existence of homophobia in sports, there is still little research on the psychological effects of homophobia in sports, that is how does homophobic discrimination affect an athlete’s mental health and performance. In sports, it is important for teams to have all their athletes be able to perform at their best levels. Yet, many coaches, sports psychologists and even other athletes don’t understand how a homophobic culture can impact the performance of their athletes and thus, the team as a whole.
In this article, we are digging deeper into the psychological effects of homophobic discrimination and its impact on the mental health of athletes that drive their participation and performance in sports. First, we will examine the state of the relationship between sports and the LGBTQI community, athletes who are openly gay, experiences of discrimination in sports and the consequences of said discrimination. Secondly, we will examine the sociological research on homophobia within sports, how sports are perceived to gay people, different ways homophobia manifests itself within team and sports environments. Thirdly, we will examine the relationship of the action/perception gap as it applies to feelings of inclusion versus actual behaviors. Fourthly, we will dive into the research on the effects of homophobia on mental health, examining how students specifically are affected by direct and indirect homophobic discrimination that puts them at an increased risk of developing mental health issues. Finally, we will bridge the gap from homophobia to sports performance by examining the effects of mental health on sports performance.
It’s 2020, Aren’t There Pride Nights and Athletes Who Are Already Out?
In the 2010s it started to become “safer” and more financially beneficial for sports leagues, teams and corporations to market to the LGBTQI community. The “Pink Dollar” is a lucrative new market for these companies, and as gay and lesbian acceptance and equality has grown, it has become less risky to market to this community. Thus, showing that your “inclusive” equals profit and teams are willing to put up rainbow flags and advertise a “Pride Night” or a “Pride Collection” for that. But without understanding what pride truly means or understanding what really counts when it comes to LGBTQI inclusion in sports. While there are certainly some teams and companies who are taking more steps, such as the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos sponsoring the “Gay Bowl”, Brooks Running Company sponsoring the International Frontrunners, Nike featuring gay and trans athletes prominently in their marketing campaigns. The overall effort though is falling short of creating any deeper level change within the culture of sports and behavior of athletes. This pushes the burden onto athletes who must choose whether to put their own health, careers, personal lives and dignity at risk for coming out. A risk that continues to have devasting impacts for the athletes.
Athletes such as skier Gus Kenworthy, figure skater Adam Rippon and diver Tom Daley have found much success in coming out and remaining active in their sports. Yet, those athletes compete in individual sports where the overall risk is lower, and the reward is significantly better. Within team sports, the only gay athletes who have had success in coming out while active in their careers are MLS players Robbie Rogers and Colin Martin. Yet, with soccer being such a low-profile sport in the United States, there is a relatively low risk for those athletes to be open. Athletes such as Michael Sam and Jason Collins who came out in the NHL and NBA respectfully faced a much higher risk in coming out. Michael Sam banked his entire professional football career in becoming the first openly gay NFL player when he was successfully drafted to the Rams, only to be cut after a few weeks. Jason Collins waited until the end of his professional basketball career to come out, and the last year of his career it was uncertain as to whether or not a team would draft him after becoming a free agent. He finally signed on with the Brooklyn Nets at the last minute and mostly stayed on the bench for his last season before officially retiring. Justin Fashanu the first openly gay professional athlete to come out while still active in any sport was unofficially blacklisted from professional soccer when he came out in 1990.
In addition, the fallout from Colin Kaepernick’s movement to protest policy brutality against black people in the US effectively ended his career as well, the risk for professional team athletes to come out as openly gay is still very high. What all these athletes have in common, is that their coming out created so much attention that coaches, managers and executives found it to be too much of a “distraction." Whether it was being gay, peacefully protesting or anything else that might draw a lot of controversial attention; it is something that most professional teams and leagues are simply unwilling to deal with. A “coming out” really should be nothing more than just expressing a part of who you are, just as someone might announce a wedding engagement, or an expecting baby. Yet, for professional athletes there are so many more variables to deal with including a sports environment built to discourage such levels of self-expression. A general lack of visibility and representation of openly gay athletes right now makes “coming out” that much riskier and distracting to their careers and livelihoods. The higher the profile of the athlete, team, or sport, the bigger the risk. It is a risk and distraction that most teams, coaches and managers are incapable and unwilling to deal with (Ziegler, C. 2016).
Even as recent as July 2020, Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond is making a statement of sitting out this MLB season, risking his entire professional career over the racist, sexist and homophobic discriminatory culture present within his own team and the perpetuation of that same culture across the MLB. We know that discrimination is present, but nobody is asking what are the psychological effects of these discriminatory cultures on the athletes who are forced to work and live in it?
Current Research on Homophobic Discrimination in Sports
Digging even deeper, sports in general is simply not a very welcoming and inclusive place for LGBTQI athletes to participate in. Research has shown that high school students who identify as LGBTQI are statistically less like to participate in sports than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts (Doull et al. 2018). People who identify as gay men are more likely to drop out of sports than their heterosexual counterparts (Baiocco et al. 2018). The primary reason for this disparity of participation between gay athletes versus straight athletes is the high levels of fear, bullying, and victimization of being openly gay within a sports context. These are stressors that really take a toll on the mental health of the athletes most affected by this discrimination.
This is fear is certainly confounded due to the use of homophobic language and attitudes within sports. A study of high school students showed that males who participate in core sports such as football, basketball, baseball and soccer are three times more likely to express homophobic attitudes than people who do not participate in those sports (Osborne et al. 2007). A lot of these attitudes are rooted within toxic masculine and heterosexist identities that are present in sports culture. Such homophobic behavior includes the use of derogatory slurs, jokes, as well as sexual harassment and mocking of same sex relationships. It can even lead to physical violence that is targeted specifically at kids who are perceived to be gay, regardless of their actual sexual orientation.
Even in Europe sports has a huge problem with homophobia, from anti-LGBT banners being displayed at soccer matches in Poland and Germany, aggressive homophobic language used by players in Germany, homophobic slurs used against players in Denmark, and even president of the French Soccer League calling homophobia in sports “folklore” all of which are very public displays of homophobia within sports. These public displays of homophobia in mainstream settings show that sports are simply not a place that gay people can be a part of.
While many will agree that the sociopolitical environment in the western world has slowly improved over the past 10 years for gay and lesbian people, the perception of sports as a homophobic institution is still quite high. A recent European wide survery project with 5500 participants across 28 EU countries determined that 9/10 people believe that homophobia and transphobia is a problem in sports. Among the 5500 participants between 16-78 years of age (mean age-27), 48% identified as female, 39% male and 13% non-binary. 32% participants identified as gay, 25% lesbian, 25% bisexual and 18% other; 12% of the participants reported “negative experiences” due to sexual orientation/ gender identity within the last 12 months in sports. This includes the use of homophobic/ transphobic slurs, discrimination, threats, physical and sexual violence (Hartmann-Tews et al. 2019)
A similar survey performed in Australia with 7000 participants, 2494 of whom identified as heterosexual found that only 1% of participants believed that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people were completely accepted into sports. 80% of participants reported witnessing or experiencing homophobia in a sports environment, including the use of slurs such as “faggot” and “poof.” The research also reported that a higher percentage of gay and lesbian participants under the age of 22 reported personally experiencing homophobia than older participants. In addition, a higher percentage of gay male participants reported experiences of homophobic behavior when compared to lesbians. The majority of LGB participants reported of hiding their sexual orientation from teammates out of fear of homophobic discrimination. 76% of all survey participants believe that youth sports are not safe place for LGB kids and young adults (Denison, et al. 2015).
Homophobic Behavior in Sports
These fears that people have regarding the safety of gay athletes within a sporting environment are founded. Homophobic behavior exists and is persistent within sports but for those who are unaffected by such discrimination, there is little acknowledgement that such behavior exists in sports due to the normalization of it and the low visibility of openly gay athletes. Many athletes, coaches and teams do not understand how their words, actions and behaviors can be harmful to gay and lesbian athletes who choose to conceal their sexual orientation.
Denison, et al. (2018) surveyed rugby players in Australia and found a disconnect between what people say and what people think when it comes to homophobia in sports. Surveying 329 male athletes under 20 years of age with only one athlete who identified as non-heterosexual; they found that 81% of athletes were confident that they would stop others from bullying a gay teammate while 83% of players believed a gay player would feel welcome on their team. In contrast, the survey also showed that 78% of players overheard teammates use homophobic words including “fag” and “poof” while 59% of players reported using the slurs themselves.
This construct is known as the “Attitude/Behavior Gap” which is the disconnect about what people say and what they do and originally involved business owner’s perception of customers of a certain racial minority and their corresponding behaviors towards them LaPiere, R. (1934). This is influenced through social norms and behaviors in a social setting that guide our behavior and can lead to contradictory actions. In this circumstance, the rugby players know the value of supporting the diversity and inclusion of gay people through the example set forth by the leaders within the sport. However, nobody is telling these players to stop using homophobic language, nor are they stopping each other; which makes it difficult for the athletes to recognize and understand that such homophobic language is harmful and discourages gay athletes from being visible. As this behavior continues, it becomes self-perpetuating and normalized as the athletes pick this behavior up from others without awareness of the harm it can have. It is also different from racist language and slurs in that, unlike racism, the victim in this circumstance is invisible and leads athletes to hide their sexual orientation, degrades their mental health and self-worth, makes them feel alienated and even quit sports altogether.
Homophobia on Mental Health
Currently, there are no studies that examine the psychological effects of homophobia in sports. Again, this is primarily attributed, to the lack of participation and visibility of gay individuals within mainstream sports (Krane & Waldron, 2020). However, there is substantial research on the general construct of homophobic bullying on mental health of gay individuals. Research examining youth attracted to the same sex or otherwise identify as LGB report higher rates of depression, drug use, anxiety, isolation, and suicidal tendencies when compared to their heterosexual counterparts (Burton et al 2013; Birkett et al 2009; Hatchel, et al 2018). A study by McNamee et al, (2008) reported that a sample of 16-year olds in Ireland who were attracted to the same sex were more than twice as likely to develop a psychiatric disorder compared to their heterosexual counterparts
The most commonly cited cause of these mental health issues among LGB youth are due to homophobic victimization, that is the act of singling someone out for cruel and unjust treatment, at school. A study examining the stress on minority populations examined that stigma and discrimination experienced by LGB youth create a hostile social environment that contributes to chronic stress, anxiety, and mental health problems (Burton et al, 2013). The prevalence of bullying and harassment in such environments contribute to the higher levels of victimization experienced by LGB youth. This includes the use of homophobic language, violence, physical and sexual harassment as well as a generally negative school climate toward LGB youth (Birkett et al, 2009). In addition, such experiences of LGB bullying and victimization in school results in an increased risk of developing mental health issues, substance abuse and suicidal tendencies well into adulthood (Russell et al, 2011).
As we pointed about above, this kind of “negative climate” exists in sports and contributes to the lack of participation of LGB people in sports. Again, the climate includes the use of homophobic language, derogatory slurs and behavior that is considered harmful to LGB people, even in teams who believe they are “inclusive.” LGB youth who report higher levels of victimization when compared to their heterosexual counterparts are more likely to experience depressive symptoms, psychiatric disorder and suicidal tendencies (Burton et al 2013; Birkett et al 2009; Hatchel, et al 2018). As a result, LGB athletes are more likely to quit participating in sports or simply refuse to take part in sports programs altogether; often with parents and coaches never understanding why. Athletes who choose to stay within sports tend to hide their sexual orientation and may even change their behavior out of fear of experiencing such victimization, including choosing to engage in the behavior themselves. This will further contribute to an uncomfortable environment for the athlete and negatively affects the athlete’s mental health (Baiocco et al. 2018; Doull et al. 2018).
Mental Health on Sports Performance
As we’ve examined, there is a significant effect on the contribution of LGB victimization on mental health and a substantial number of studies that examine the effects of mental health on sports performance. So, while there are no studies examining the direct relationship, it is reasonable to assume a connection between homophobic discrimination and sports performance via the impact on mental health. It is shown that athletes who face mental health issues such as depression, mental illness, psychiatric disorders and suicidal tendencies are at an increased risk of showing declines in overall sports performance and mental resilience. (Souter, et al. 2018; Wright et al. 2015; Raglin, J. 2018).
It is also important to recognize the role of the fulfillment of basic psychological needs based upon Self Determination Theory within a sports context and how it can influence mental toughness on the performance output for athletes. Self Determination Theory examines the three basic psychological needs that influence the well-being, intrinsic motivation, and self-regulation of individuals. These three needs are autonomy, competency, and relatedness and the satisfaction of these needs drive optimal performance and well-being (Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. 2000).
Coaches guide the social environment and culture of their team and athletes. This has a direct influence on the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs of their athletes which in turn drives the athlete’s performance and general engagement within the sport. A study by Mahoney et al, (2014) showed that the fulfillment of basic psychological needs in athletes contributes to the level of effort an athlete expends during training and competition. It showed that athletes whose psychological needs were “thwarted” or otherwise unsatisfied showed lower levels of effort when it comes to training and performance tasks and had to expend greater mental energy in order for them to perform at a consistent level. On the flip side, the satisfaction of the three basic psychological needs promotes high effort levels, self-control, and are “more likely to result in individuals feeling as though they are mastering new skill, goal achievement, and a sense of productivity and, as such, is likely to enhance perceptions of positive affect” (Mahoney et al, 2014)
Currently, there is not a lot of research that go further in depth regarding the psychological effects of homophobia on sports performance. The lack of visibility and representation of LGB athletes in youth, elite level, and professional sports make it challenging for researchers to find participants. Additionally, a lack of acknowledgement on the presence of harmful behaviors that affect LGB athletes make it more difficult to develop intervention strategies to determine their success in an applied sports context. (Krane & Waldron, 2020)
Discussion and Conclusion
In tying all this research together, our intention is to bring greater knowledge and awareness to the presence of homophobia in sports; how it influences the participation (or lack thereof) of LGB athletes in sports; the effects of homophobic behavior on the mental health of LGB individuals and finally; the influence of mental health on sports performance. It is clear that homophobia does exist in sports and it influences the perception that sports is an environment which is not safe for LGB individuals. We have established that homophobic behavior and victimization has a negative effect on an individual’s mental health and wellbeing which in turn can lead to poor performance outcomes.
Coaches and sports psychologists have a direct influence on the culture that they create within their teams that drives the development of their athletes. A lot of athletes participate in sports from a young age and model their behavior after their mentors and authority figures, including parents, teachers, and coaches. It is important for coaches and sports psychologists to pursue training to create a team culture that discourages the use of derogatory language and homophobic behavior. Also, tools need to be developed that promote a more open and inclusive team culture while being able to recognize when homophobic behavior is present. In addition, there is a need to develop training tools for coaches and sports psychologists to respond appropriately if an athlete chooses to open up about their sexual orientation. Coaches are often seen as mentors and trusted authority figures that athletes will look up to for leadership, so their response will influence the future growth of each athlete under their responsibility.
If an LGB athlete chooses to confide in their coach or sports psychologist about their sexual orientation, it is important that the coach or sports psychologist responds appropriately ensure the athlete’s trust, discretion, confidence and emotional wellbeing is respected. Regardless of their personal opinions on LGB lifestyles, it is their responsibility is to ensure the health and wellbeing of their athletes during practice and competition. Coming out is a significant moment for LGB people, one that is rooted in uncertainty, fear and anxiety but can be a positive experience. It is the responsibility of the coach or sports psychologist to ensure that the athlete has the emotional support and guidance that they have come to expect from their mentor. The health of the coach-athlete relationship will be affected and can determine the future of the athlete’s career and participation in sports. It is crucial that coaches and sports psychologists have the training and education to build a healthy and inclusive team culture that will reduce the incidences and drive increased participation and visibility of LGB athletes.
By Dirk Smith
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David "Dirk" Smith M.Sc, SDL, CSCS, (He/Him) is a sport psychology expert, strength & conditioning coach, swimming coach, sports diversity leader, published research scientist, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 12 years of experience, education, and training to empower athletes to build self efficacy, strength, confidence, and express themselves through sport.