Discrimination in Sports: are Federations, Teams and Fan Clubs doing enough?

This week, racism in football was on full display after soccer fans unleashed racist abuse onto the England national team after it lost. Many are already calling it a “watershed moment” and even “a moment of opportunity” for British soccer. Frankly, it is hard to buy into that narrative as issues of discrimination in soccer are not new. It feels a lot like wishful thinking until institutional commitment and resources are scaled up. The potential unifying power of soccer has a price tag.

In Europe and many other parts of the world, soccer is bigger than Sport in a way many of our American friends cannot always comprehend. Men, particularly, not only watch soccer but well into middle-age lace up their cleats and step onto the field during the weekend and even evenings. It is a way to clear their mind, an outlet for life frustrations but also a way to build communities.

This is exactly the reason why the culture of discrimination and harassment in soccer is infuriating. Soccer routinely excludes girls, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people from an important component of life: at school, in the stadium, and, now in social media. Instead of contributing to overcome differences, it exacerbates exclusion.

And this actually penalizes everybody. As an example, gender stereotyping and homophobic bullying in soccer also affect straight girls negatively. A thorough investigation by the School of Social Sciences at Monash University in Australia has shown that girls’ enrollment will sharply drop out at adolescence from soccer out of fear they will be perceived as lesbians. Predictably gay men have higher dropout rates for sports than heterosexual men. And since the sad story of Justin Fashanu in the 1990s, almost no active male player has come out: a statistical aberration. The same Monash University has shown last year the extent of homophobia

Perhaps more importantly, soccer fails to use its incredible platform to push positive values rather than negative ones. In the words of Megan Rapinoe, the lesbian captain of the US Soccer team: “We have a unique opportunity in football, different to any other sport in the world, to use this beautiful game to change this world forever”

Yet I do not believe that soccer is institutionally homophobic, sexist, and racist. However, Federations, the National Teams, and fan clubs must do more to radically shift their culture. Erik Denison of Monash best articulated it when he wrote last month that “there is a delusion of inclusion in the sports sector”.

FIFA, the World soccer governing body with $6.5 billion in annual revenue, has the money to go beyond lip service. Here is a link to their 2021 budget which shows that only $15 million is spent annually on women’s football programs, sustainability, human rights, and anti-discrimination. A drop in the bucket compared to the extent of the issues. FIFA only created a human rights and anti-discrimination department last year after intense political pressure. As a result, FIFA focuses too much on sanctions rather than on the harder work of fostering inclusion among fans, clubs, and national teams.

The issue of homophobia and transphobia is not limited to soccer. After all, only 142 athletes heading to the Tokyo Olympics out of 11,000 or so are openly LGBTQ+. This representation is even more abysmal than in the Boardroom or parliament – bastions of conservatism.

Yet, Monash, again, shows that concrete initiatives targeted at dealing with homophobia can have an impact. It found, as an example, that players on Australian hockey teams that hold pride games use nearly 40% less homophobic language than those in teams that have not held games. And Pride Games are only one small action in a huge untapped toolbox to tackle homophobia and transphobia in Sports.

Last year, I had a discussion with the Miami Dolphins at the 4Ward Americas LGBTQI Human Rights Symposium asking how much of its revenues – about $500 millions a year – the team was investing to contribute to the fight against homophobia. Greater transparency would go a long way in understanding if the lucrative world of sports has truly understood its responsibility in tackling discrimination and harassment.

In the words of Larry Kramer: “We Are Not Crumbs, We Must Not Accept Crumbs.” The time of empty promises is coming to an end.