Nearly 40 per cent of women in the sport industry face discrimination based on their gender. Eight-four per cent of American athletes have witnessed or experienced homophobia or transphobia in sports. Fifty-three percent of all reports made to anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out involved racism.
Though society is working toward becoming more inclusive of all races, genders, sexualities, religions and abilities, discrimination in sports continues to be a blight on what should be a fun atmosphere. You should strive to thoroughly and quickly investigate all examples of discrimination to make sports inclusive.
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In 2015, the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final between the US and Japan became the most-watched soccer game in US history with 25.4 million viewers. Despite this, female athletes still face harassment and discrimination in sports at all levels of play.
While women make up around 40 per cent of sports participants, the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport discovered that they only receive about four per cent of sports media coverage.
Because their games are scheduled for less desirable times and are barely discussed in the media, women’s professional sports teams earn much less than their male counterparts, as their wages are revenue-based.
Female athletes also have to deal with how they are perceived by the public. Men who play professional sports are seen as heroes who live and breathe their game. However, women are seen as mothers or wives first and athletes second. Toxic gender stereotypes also lead female athletes to be objectified and sexualized, their looks garnering more press than their skills.
The recent USA Gymnastics scandal shined a spotlight on sexual harassment in sports. The organization has filed for bankruptcy after being sued by a number of former gymnasts who allege they were abused by coaches and doctors.
While gender discrimination in sports most negatively affects women, gender stereotypes in sports also affect men. Male athletes who participate in “feminine” sports like figure skating and dance at a young age are often bullied. Men are often expected to be tall, big and muscular to play any sport and may be discriminated against if they don’t fit that body type.
- Support women’s and girls’ sports as a fan or player. Attend women’s sports games at all levels. Play a sport if you are an athlete. Support female athletes by watching their games on television or following them on social media.
- Develop gender equity policies. Sports organizations need to work towards gender equity. Women doing equal work should have equal participation opportunities, financial aid or funding, wages and benefits as their male counterparts.
- Avoid sexist language in communications. When writing about women’s sports, avoid using innuendos or belittling athletes by alluding to their outfits or family roles outside the game. Use the same vivid language when describing both female and male athletes’ performances.
- Establish a whistle blower program. An easy-to-use, secure and anonymous whistleblowing platform can capture discrimination and harassment complaints in your sports organization. Coming forward to expose unfair practices can be daunting, so maintaining whistleblowers’ security and privacy is key.
- Hire more female sports executives. Encouraging women to pursue careers as players, coaches, trainers, executives and journalists can push sports towards gender equity.
Make sports culture safe for everyone. Download this free sexual harassment policy template to help protect athletes and your organization.
In 2018, the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport recorded 52 instances of racial discrimination in sports in the United States alone. Internationally, they noted 137 racist acts. These numbers are up from 41 and 79 acts, respectively.
Even LeBron James, one of today’s most successful basketball players, is not immune to racism. In June 2017, the athlete’s home was vandalized with racial slurs the night before that season’s NBA Finals. James responded to the incident by saying “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough.”
Athletes of color experience harassment and discrimination from teammates, opponents, team staff and spectators. Hearing racial slurs called out at them, whether in the locker room or from the stands, is unfortunately not uncommon.
Racial discrimination in sports can also be less obvious. For instance, some sports, such as golf and tennis, may not welcome minority athletes as much as others. Because these sports are often played at paid clubs, socio-economic barriers may keep minority athletes away, as people of color are overrepresented among America’s poor.
Sports organizations should have a zero-tolerance policy for racial discrimination and harassment. Supporting minority athletes by developing a good reporting tool and taking every case seriously will make athletes of all races feel safer and more welcome.
- Write a zero-tolerance racism policy. This should apply to players, coaches, staff, and fans. Make it clear that racial discrimination in any form is not welcome in your organization.
- Support athletes who speak up. Encourage players to report racial discrimination when they experience or witness it. Do not subscribe to the idea that athletes should “shut up and stick to sports” when they speak out publicly against racism.
- Focus on inclusion. Teams should strive to include all players equally when planning team- and skill-building activities.
- Don’t make assumptions about athletes based on race. Just because a player has a certain skin color doesn’t make them better- or less-suited to a specific sport.
- Establish a safe sporting space for new immigrants. Immigrants come from a variety of national, racial, and linguistic backgrounds. Make your organization welcoming and accessible to them.
Religious discrimination in sports can take many forms. Athletes may be harassed by opponents and teammates if they are even chosen for the team at all. Less direct forms of discrimination, such as not accommodating each player’s religious needs, can be just as harmful.
The traditional ways of doing things in the world of sports may not fit with some athletes’ religions. For instance, Jewish athletes can’t play a game on a Saturday and Muslim athletes may be prohibited from mixing with the opposite gender, including staff or spectators.
Sports uniforms often pose problems for religious athletes. Players may feel uncomfortable wearing uniforms with sponsor logos that don’t mesh with their beliefs (e.g. tobacco, alcohol, gambling). Uniforms may also be too revealing. Sports dress regulations should allow athletes to wear religious head coverings.
In 2017, a girls basketball player in Maryland was forced to miss her team’s regional final because she did not produce “documented evidence” that her hijab was worn for religious reasons. Though other coaches and officials did not have concerns about the hijab throughout the season, the opposing coach of the final game said it was in violation of the rarely-enforced rule.
Religious athletes may also have unique needs during practice and games. People may assume that fasting players will be too weak to participate. However, asking the player how to accommodate them is always better than making assumptions. Not offering players breaks from play and a quiet space for religious observation is another form of indirect discrimination in sports.
- Reschedule games and practices when possible. Be aware that some athletes’ religions may not allow them to play on certain days of the week or times of day.
- Let players take breaks during games and practices for religious observation. Give them a quiet, separate space for prayer.
- Run single-gender or closed-to-the-public events. Athletes’ religions may not allow them to mix with the opposite gender, whether it be other players, staff or spectators.
- Accommodate religious dress in uniforms. Allow athletes to cover their heads or bodies according to their religious beliefs. Provide full-length undergarments to wear under shorts or short-sleeved tops.
- Refresh fasting athletes. When athletes are fasting for religious reasons, they cannot drink water. Give them cold, wet towels to help them cool down.
Disability discrimination in sports is perhaps the least talked-about form of discrimination in sports. Even if they are not being malicious, people may leave out athletes with disabilities because they don’t want to do the extra work to accommodate them.
Sports organizations need to provide a range of options when it comes to including athletes with disabilities. Consider the inclusion spectrum, which includes everything from making no modifications to creating teams exclusively for those with disabilities. Asking athletes how you can meet their needs (rather than assuming) is the best way to combat disability discrimination in sports.
- Make modifications. Modifying the teaching style, rules, equipment and environment of a sport can make it more accessible for athletes with disabilities. These modifications can be minor or major and should maintain the integrity of the sport.
- Establish disability-friendly sports teams. Teams that are primarily for people with a disability (like mixed-ability wheelchair basketball) or only for people with a disability (like a blind soccer league) give athletes the chance to play a game that fits their needs.
- Offer non-playing roles. If participating in an activity as an athlete is not possible, offer the person with a disability a role on the team like coach, referee, team president or volunteer.
- Create accessible sports facilities. Install features that make the facility easier for those with disabilities to use (like ramps and equipment with Braille on the buttons). Have resources available to modify programming.
- Remove economic barriers for athletes with disabilities. High transportation costs and the need for specialized equipment may keep people with disabilities from participating in sports. Offer financial solutions to those who wish to join your organization.
The USA ranks worst in homophobia in sports according to Out On the Fields, the first-ever international study on the subject. LGBTQ athletes often face physical abuse, verbal threats, cyberbullying and exclusion from team social activities. Teammates, opponents and spectators may also make homophobic jokes or use slurs.
One troubling example of homophobia in sports comes from former Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland. Discussing homosexuality in 1986, Portland told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I will not have it in my program.”
She went on to verbally abuse players who did not act “feminine enough” and who she suspected were lesbians. In 2005, former player Jen Harris sued Portland and the school’s athletic director for discrimination. After an investigation, Portland was fined and given diversity training.
LGBTQ discrimination in sports has made the news recently as the United States Congress debates passing the Equality Act. The act would update the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity.
However, opponents of the act worry about athletes who were born male participating in women’s sports. They say that allowing trans women to play alongside cisgender women would give trans athletes an advantage, though this would violate this new act if it passes.
- Require regular inclusion training. Players and staff should participate in an annual program that teaches how to avoid discrimination in sports.
- Include LGBTQ in your harassment policy. Make sure everyone in your organization knows that discrimination and harassment for sexuality or gender identity is just as unacceptable as it is for religion, race or ability.
- Run an anti-homophobia campaign. Participate in programs like the You Can Play project or AthleteAlly to show your organization supports LGBTQ athletes.
- Promote positive spaces. Display signs and stickers around fields, arenas, locker rooms and offices to show your support for gay and transgender athletes.
- Offer LGBTQ information on your website. Prominently display equity statements and include links to LGBTQ resources (e.g. gay teams or groups).
As a sports organization, it is essential to support diverse athletes and staff. In addition to the solutions listed above, use the resources written by SafeSport.org, a non-profit dedicated to eradicating all forms of abuse in sports.
Use our EEO investigation checklist to combat discrimination the next time you receive a complaint from an athlete.