Tackling Homophobia in Sport
As a Crystal Palace fan, to say the away day at Swansea was one of ups and downs would be an understatement. However, as co-chair of Proud & Palace, the Official LGBT fan group of Crystal Palace there was one additional high on that rollercoaster match day, which will live in the memory as much as the 97 minutes of football. And that was the incredible support of Stonewall’s rainbow laces campaign. On Saturday Crystal Palace joined other Premier League and EFL clubs in showing their support to kick homophobia out of football. Through my role at Proud & Palace, and a member of the Pride in Football network I’ve worked closely on the campaign, featuring in the Stonewall campaign film and attending the launch last week. Before the game, I was also invited onto the pitch for a photo with Scott Dann, Jack Cork, the chair of our counterpart group Proud Swans, and the local hate crimes officer from Swansea police.
It’s very easy to forget why this campaign is needed, and to think that surely homophobia was left in the dark days of football hooliganism. However, a look on the Premier League’s social media during this week shows that there is still a long way to go. From comparing LGBT people to animals to the ever witty and original “it’s Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” the trolls were out in abundance to show just why this campaign is so important. For those in the Pride in Football network of fan groups, this is what we have been working to counter for years, but the venom of the comments still shocked many people.
For me, the campaign is not only important on a human level, but teaches valuable lessons on a professional level. We are working more and more on campaigns with the aim of boosting participation. The LGBT Foundation estimates there are 3-4 million LGBT people in the UK. Sport is currently failing to communicate to this group. From schools upwards, we need to get better at letting LGBT people know that they have a place in sport. At the Proud & Palace launch this summer the mayor of Croydon Wayne Trakas-Lawlor expressed this brilliantly, that as you are coming to terms with your sexuality or gender identity you start to question and re-evaluate where you ‘belong’ in society. Where you should go, what you should do, how you should act. Of course the answer should be that you can do what you want but sadly society tells us otherwise and any discouragement at that stage is hugely damaging. At school I was called names and bullied for playing football and basketball, called a d*ke and asked if I thought I was a boy. I stuck with sport and am lucky enough to now work in what I love, but faced with that language millions wouldn’t have done and who knows what those people would be doing with their lives now. Working for powerful brands and governing bodies we have a duty to increase interest and participation in sports and tackling these issues head on will not only improve the experience of millions of young people, it will help our industry and make a more active nation.
The other thing that the campaign has been a reminder of is the global nature of sports and it’s huge power. The Premier League is a global brand, and images of captains wearing rainbow armbands were being broadcast into countries all over the world where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment and in some cases death. Many of these countries offer great commercial gains for football, and the Premier League deserves credit for showing such visible global support. We will all face decisions in our career over whether to promote what we believe is right, or what we believe will deliver commercial gains. I hope we all make the right decisions.
The campaign also highlights the importance of the language of sports and how it communicates itself. Because perpetuating a culture of ‘harmless banter’ is the bottom layer of a very dangerous pyramid. That layer validates the next, which is the use of homophobic language in chants, aimed at players, and at rival teams. That layer validates the next, which is targeted hateful language at individuals. When you get to the top of the pyramid, lives are at risk. As sports communication professionals, we all have a duty to put in to sport the sort of language and the sort of culture that encourages inclusivity and diversity.
I’ll give the final message to the brilliant John Amaechi, who spoke at the launch of rainbow laces at Stonewall last week. John told a story about how one night he waited up all night for his mum to get in from work. When she did, he ran up and gave her a huge hug and told her time and again how much he loved her. His mum looked around the house over his shoulder, and asked John if he’d hoovered the landing. It was Wednesday, and that was his chore for the day. John gushed again how much he loved his mum. She repeated the question: “did you hoover the bloody landing?”. Rainbow laces weekend was a nice warm hug for the LGBT community, but as communications professionals we all have a duty to help sport hoover its landing.