Homophobia in Sport Contents

1Sport’s problems with homophobia


1.According to government estimates, approximately 6% of the UK population is gay and yet homophobia in sport remains a serious issue in the UK.1 In 2012, the previous Culture, Media and Sport Committee undertook an inquiry into Racism in Football. A key conclusion of this report was that homophobia was emerging as a “bigger problem in football than racism and other forms of discrimination”.2 Research at the time found that 25% of fans thought that homophobia was present in football in comparison to 10% who thought that racism was present in the sport. Since the previous Committee’s report, further research has been undertaken into homophobia, including into sports other than football.

2.The ‘Out on the Fields’ study—the first international study into homophobia in sport—provided perhaps the most comprehensive study of the issue to date. This study, which was published in 2015, highlighted youth sports as a particular issue. The majority of survey participants (73%) did not believe that youth sports were a ‘supportive and safe’ place for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB) participants. The UK was broadly in line with the international consensus on this, with 70% of UK respondents agreeing with this statement.3 Other concerning findings related to homophobic language and jokes heard within sport, with 84% of participants reporting hearing homophobic jokes and humour within sport4 and 49% of UK participants believing that, within sporting environments, homophobia is most likely to occur within spectator stands.5 These findings were underpinned by a recent BBC Radio 5 Live programme where it was reported that 8% of football fans surveyed would stop watching their team if they signed an openly gay player.6 Additionally, a recent Stonewall survey reported that 72% of football fans have heard homophobic abuse.7 Moreover, as we describe below, homophobic leaflets have been distributed, and homophobic chanting has taken place this season. The problem is not going away.

3.These findings are echoed in relation to sports other than football. One of the most high-profile instances involved rugby union referee Nigel Owens, who was the victim of homophobic abuse at a match in 2014.8 In diving, Tom Daley has had similar experiences, having received homophobic abuse on social media.9

4.While the Committee has long held concerns over homophobia and its prevalence in sport, our current inquiry was in part prompted by Tyson Fury’s nomination for BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2015. Mr Fury was placed on the shortlist, despite the fact that he had previously made numerous violently homophobic comments. We queried the judgment of BBC executives in including Fury on the shortlist when taking evidence from Lord Hall, the Director-General of the BBC. We were dissatisfied and concerned by his response to the controversy when Hall reaffirmed that he ‘believed in the process’ of selection for the Sports Personality of the Year award and he declined to condemn Fury’s inclusion on the shortlist.10 We consider that the inclusion of Tyson Fury in the shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year was symptomatic of homophobia not being taken seriously enough in sport. It provides an example of how homophobic abuse is allowed to pass unchallenged too often.

5.We acknowledge that there are very serious issues in relation to transgender people in sport and the problems they face. There are also significant differences between these issues and homophobia, which has been the primary focus of this report.

6.Taking all matters into account, however, progress has been made in recent years with respect to attitudes towards and LGB visibility11 within sport. LGB visibility, in particular, has increased significantly over the last few years as is shown by the inclusion of 44 sportspeople known to be LGB in the incredibly successful United Kingdom team at the Rio Olympics in 2016. There is also a small but significant number of high-profile, openly gay sportspeople, Tom Daley and Welsh rugby international Gareth Thomas being perhaps the most notable. We also acknowledge that a number of governing bodies have reaffirmed their commitment to tackling homophobia. However, not enough progress has been made. Homophobia remains a problem in sport across all levels and sport appears to be well behind society as a whole when it comes to tolerance and acceptance as well as LGB visibility. Indeed, John Amaechi, the former NBA player, told us that ‘sport still lags behind as a segment of society, and I think purposefully so’.12

7.Because of these continuing concerns, and in particular because of the BBC’s Tyson Fury controversy, we decided to undertake a short inquiry into homophobia in sport. We have taken into consideration not only recent events but also the long-term effects and repercussions felt from homophobia, in the context of all levels of sport from children taking part in school games lessons to Olympians and Premier League footballers. We received 40 written submissions and took oral evidence from Dr Mark McCormack of Durham University, Dr Jamie Cleland of Loughborough University, Professor Ian Rivers of the University of Strathclyde, John Amaechi, Tom Bosworth, the Olympic race-walker, Nigel Owens, rugby union referee, Paul Twocock, Director of Campaigns, Policy and Research at Stonewall, Di Cunningham, organiser of Proud Canaries, the LGB fan group at Norwich City Football Club and Jamie Hooper, Equality and Diversity Programme Manager at the Amateur Swimming Association. We would like to thank all those who gave evidence to us.13


8.Over the course of our three evidence sessions, we heard about experiences from a range of sports including football, rugby, athletics, aquatics and basketball. We found that football was the sport mentioned most frequently by our witnesses as having a problem with homophobia; in particular, the Football Association came under criticism for its lack of a coherent strategy on how to tackle homophobia and its perceived inaction. John Amaechi, when giving evidence to us, said of the FA and FIFA:

What we have at the moment is an abject contravention of the principles of the sport itself. Whether you are looking at the FA, FIFA or the IOC, if you read their own conventions and principles, it is clear that the status quo contravenes them, whether it be the deaths of people building stadiums in Qatar or whether it be the treatment of women in certain countries and their access to sport or whether it be the way LGB people are treated in the stands and on the fields at every level.14

9.As the most popular spectator sport in the UK, it is of great concern that there are no prominent football players in this country who are openly gay, meaning that there is very little by way of LGB visibility for LGB youth. Football has a problematic history with homophobia. As recently as October 2016, it was reported that homophobic leaflets were being distributed outside the Olympic stadium prior to a match between West Ham and Chelsea.15 Homophobic chants at football games are reasonably commonplace, with a number of incidents reported in 2016. One such incident was reported at a match between Luton Town and Leyton Orient earlier in October,16 and in light of this incident, Greg Clarke, Chair of the FA commented that:

There is a very, very small minority of people who hurl vile abuse at people who they perceive are different. Our job is stamp down hard on that behaviour. There was an example at the weekend where there were allegations at Leyton Orient versus Luton that the Luton fans were hurling homophobic abuse at a group of men who they perceived to be gay. That behaviour is disgusting and needs stamping out and I am absolutely determined that we do stamp it out.17

If I was a gay man, why would I expose myself to that? Our job is to identify anybody guilty of persecuting in any way members of a minority, an ethnic minority, a sexual minority or even gender, women get vile abuse too. Our job as the regulator is to come down like a tonne of bricks and make sure that that sort of abhorrent behaviour is driven from the game.18

10.Furthermore, Clarke said that he ‘would be amazed’ if there were no gay players in the Premier League and that he was ‘personally ashamed’ that these players do not feel safe to come out.19

11.The suggestion by the Chair of the FA that football may not be a safe environment for players to come out is particularly troubling. This is especially so considering that the first and only British professional player to come out as gay was Justin Fashanu in 1990. He committed suicide in 1998. In the intervening years, he had been subjected to homophobic abuse and press intrusion and his career dwindled. We are very concerned that, despite the significant change in society’s attitudes to homosexuality in the last 30 years, there is little reflection of this progress being seen in football, particularly in terms of LGB visibility. Indeed, it is often LGB supporters who provide the only LGB visibility at football stadia. Di Cunningham, of Proud Canaries said:

So much more needs to be done. We have talked about improvements over the years, but it is really patchy, looking at homophobia in football at the moment. Proud Canaries has been an amazing journey. We have only been around for just over a couple of years and we were the second officially-recognised LGB fan group, after Gay Gooners. It seems to be the fact that there is some LGB visibility at Carrow Road that has really changed things for everybody, not just for LGB people. There is no LGB visibility on the pitch in football, in elite men’s football, in terms of players or officials, but we evidently have LGB fans.20

12.Rugby was a sport which also featured frequently throughout our evidence sessions in both positive and negative terms. Rugby has comparatively high LGB visibility, especially in contrast to other popular sports such as football. One of the most successful rugby referees in the world, Nigel Owens, is openly gay, as is former Welsh International Gareth Thomas. Keegan Hirst, who currently plays rugby league for Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, is also openly gay. However, despite this encouraging LGB visibility within rugby, the game is not devoid of problems with homophobia. There have been a number of instances of homophobia at rugby matches, including abuse directed at Nigel Owens: one instance being during a match between England and New Zealand in November 2014, when Owens was subjected to ‘foul-mouthed, racist, homophobic abuse’.21 This resulted in two fans being banned for two years and ordered to pay £1,000 to a charity of Owens’ choice. Commenting immediately after the incident, Owens expressed his concern that homophobia was an increasing problem within rugby, adding: “It’s not me they’re hurting, it’s the young kid sitting in the row in front who’s maybe dealing with their own sexuality … I know they can tip you over the edge.”22

13.This 2014 incident was followed by a police investigation in 2015, when police were alerted to homophobic abuse sent to Owens on Twitter after a Six Nations game between England and France.23

14.More recently, in September 2016, a Batley Bulldogs fan was banned from the club’s stadium for sending homophobic tweets to Keegan Hirst. The club confirmed that the fan would no longer be allowed in the stadium and said that they wished to “send out a clear message that if you engage in such behaviour, we do not want you to attend our stadium.”24 This response from Batley Bulldogs appears to be broadly in line with the generally tougher stance that rugby has taken in comparison to football. While this sport undoubtedly has its problems, it has taken admirable and appropriate steps to address and tackle homophobia where it has arisen.

15.Homophobia is of course not solely limited to the realms of rugby and football. In boxing, we have already noted the controversy caused by Tyson Fury’s inclusion on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist; furthermore, eight-time boxing world champion Manny Pacquaio has previously made homophobic remarks, including describing gay people as ‘worse than animals’.25 This statement led to Nike terminating their contract with him. Further comments were recently made by the darts player, Eric Bristow, who made homophobic comments in relation to allegations of child sex abuse in football.26 Bristow’s tweets were subsequently reported to Staffordshire Police as a ‘hate crime’.

16.In athletics, we heard from Tom Bosworth about the homophobia he had previously encountered, particularly when competing at the lower levels: “About four or five years ago, some former athletes in local athletics would verbally abuse me. It was pretty nasty, and made worse by the fact they found it funny.”27 Also in athletics, double Olympic gold medallist, the Russian pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, was accused of making homophobic comments.

17.Away from athletics, John Amaechi told us of the extensive homophobic backlash he experienced as the first openly gay NBA player after he came out in 2007.28 The abuse directed at Amaechi was particularly ferocious, with fellow NBA player Tim Hardaway saying:

First of all I wouldn’t want him on my team. Second of all, if he was on my team I would really distance myself from him because I don’t think that’s right and I don’t think he should be in the locker room when we’re in the locker room. Something has to give. If you have 12 other ball players in your locker room that’s upset and can’t concentrate and always worried about him in the locker room or on the court or whatever, it’s going to be hard for your teammates to win and accept him as a teammate.29

18.However, we note that there is much to be positive about and a number of sports have demonstrated particularly progressive attitudes and a commitment to making change. In particular, aquatic sports have a high number of LGB role-models, including Tom Daley, the Australian diver, Matthew Mitcham, a gold medallist at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and Ian Thorpe, one of the most successful swimmers of all time. Tom Daley announced in 2013 that he was in a relationship with a man. This announcement was not without its detractors: homophobic abuse and comments were directed at Daley at the time of the announcement and further homophobic abuse was documented on social media throughout the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. However, the press and public reaction was, for the most part, very positive. Daley’s career has gone from strength to strength, not just with a further Olympic medal win but also with a successful media career with a number of high-profile corporate sponsorships. Daley’s sponsorships and earnings have actually increased since his coming out in 2013 and this is, of itself, very encouraging.

19.We also commend the Amateur Swimming Association for the work it does with LGB swimmers and the steps it is taking towards developing tailored toolkits in order to help operators best assist in the recent upsurge in transgender participation, as well as their support for “safe spaces” and gay-friendly swimming clubs. The ASA ran LGB roadshows to get people to engage with its audit in partnership with the Government Equalities Office steering group, Pride Sports, Ditch the Label, Transsexuals in Sport and Stonewall. We encourage other sporting bodies to follow examples such as these and initiate similar outreach programmes.30

20.We would also like to acknowledge the work undertaken by lesser-known sports towards tackling homophobia and providing an open and welcoming environment for the LGB community. Paul Twocock of Stonewall drew the Committee’s attention to the work of the UK Roller Derby Association:

The UK Roller Derby Association, a very small governing body, don’t have many resources but have proved that you can do it. They have developed a policy on gender and sexual orientation that is well-used by the sport and is creating an inclusive sport for LGB people. You don’t need to have huge resources to do this, but what you need is leadership and determination and commitment.31

21.Women’s football offers a positive environment for LGB players and fans and is especially notable in that it provides a number of high-profile LGB role-models including Casey Stoney, former England Coach Hope Powell and England players Melanie Garside-Wright and Lianne Sanderson. We have heard that the women’s game tends to be more accepting than the men’s, with very few reports of homophobic abuse and language.32 We believe that, in general, the women’s game offers a safe and positive environment for LGB youth as a result. However, we acknowledge that women’s football is not without its own problems. Women who play football are often assumed to be gay, a comment also often heard in rugby. When giving evidence to us, England international Lianne Sanderson said:

For me, as a female athlete, it is certainly a lot different to a male athlete. With female athletes I think stereotypically they expect females to be gay who play sports ….33

I would not say it is easier. I just think that with female athletes, people automatically stereotypically assume that female athletes are gay. I think that it is one of those things where if a female athlete comes out and says that they are gay, people automatically expect that, which again is a problem in itself.34


22.There is a significantly higher drop-out rate in sport among LGB youth than there is among heterosexual youth, with the Out on the Fields survey showing that there is a significant decline in LGB participants as they grow older. It is particularly striking that 30% of gay men surveyed said that their experiences of school physical education classes were what discouraged them.35 However, we do not wish to oversimplify this problem by placing the blame for this decline in participation solely on the effects of physical education classes. Indeed, the reasons are likely to be far more complex. Professor Ian Rivers said:

The key thing to stress is that I do not believe there is necessarily a huge issue now within school-based sport. I think the issue is more associated with extra-curricular and non-curricular sports, where you have coaches, etc, who are not aware of the issues they have to address. Everyone within teacher education and the training of teachers is aware of the Equality Act and the implications of it.36

23.However, it does seem likely that negative experiences of school sport have an impact on whether or not people decide to participate in sport as an adult.37 Furthermore, for many young gay people, experiences of school sport have a deleterious effect on their sense of self-worth. This is not just ‘playground banter’ and, unless it is swiftly and firmly challenged by teachers, it amounts to bullying. Schools should explicitly address the question of unacceptable homophobic language in their bullying policies, and consider ways in which they can make their sports programmes more diverse and sensitive to the barriers to participation faced by young gay people. We recommend that sport governing bodies—many of which have been doing good work in encouraging girls to take part in sport at school—extend their work in schools explicitly to address the problem of homophobia.

24.The Out on the Fields survey found that 70% of British gay males under the age of 22 who participated in the survey were either completely or partially closeted from their teammates.38 Reasons cited for this included a fear of bullying, a fear of being rejected by teammates and a concern about discrimination from officials. Research conducted by Sport Wales suggests that 40% of LGB people have been discouraged from participation in sport and that 60% would be more likely to participate if sport were more LGB-friendly.39 We have serious concerns over the effects of low participation among LGB youth on their mental and physical health and well-being and we note that, in the long-term, it is very likely that a number of sports have been robbed of talent by the fact that promising young players have not felt accepted or supported in the sport they play. It appears that young players and athletes sometimes feel that they have to make the active choice between either coming out or continuing to participate in their chosen sport. As a result, players and athletes either drop out of sport together or, as has been the case with some professional sportspeople, they wait until after retirement to come out.


25.Over the course of our evidence sessions, we heard a great deal about the use of homophobic language, particularly the tendency to dismiss it as ‘banter’. Research from BBC Radio 5 Live found that 50% of football fans have heard homophobic abuse at football matches, while a Stonewall survey put this figure at 72%. It is beyond dispute that homophobic language remains persistent in sport, and it is clear that this is a particular problem within football. We are concerned that, all too often, the use of this language is not taken seriously enough, particularly as we have heard throughout this inquiry about how it often causes upset to both players and fans. Nigel Owens told us of his concerns, based on personal experience, that the prevalence of this kind of language in sport often leads to young people finding it harder to accept their sexuality and come out and may even so reduce self-esteem that it leads to self-harm.40 This is not a problem restricted to spectator sports. Homophobic terms are also prevalent at schools and at sport at the grassroots levels. It is clear to us that the casual use of homophobic epithets and terms has a wide-ranging and damaging effect and we consider it very disappointing that a significant percentage of people consider anti-LGB language to be harmless. It should be treated in the same way as other offensive language, whether racist, sexist or denigrating any other group.

26.Players may also be exposed to homophobic language from teammates, not just spectators in the ground. Someone from a leading professional football club, who did not want to be named, told us that within the privacy of the locker room players often engage in banter with each other that has real edge, and whilst not necessarily cruelly meant, is nevertheless designed to tease out any perceived weakness or vulnerability. This can include homophobic remarks, as well as other language that would not bear public scrutiny. The intense atmosphere of a locker room containing elite sportsmen, many of whom may come from communities with wildly different attitudes to homosexuality, is not a normal working environment. In such an atmosphere it would be understandable, though, if gay players felt, that, if they were to come out, they could be a target for verbal abuse. This is something that we have heard time and time again from witnesses throughout our inquiry and, more recently, we were concerned by comments made by the footballer Adam McCabe who spoke of his experiences as a gay footballer who felt compelled to keep his sexuality a secret:

In the locker room, there is banter—and for a closeted athlete, it can be intimidating …

When people use words like ‘faggot’, ‘poof’ or ‘queer’, it’s usually a split-second decision and they’re not really thinking about what they’re saying. But when you’re a closeted athlete sitting there, looking at your coach saying these things, you’re taken aback.41

27.Sports clubs are responsible for the wellbeing of their players, and it would be unacceptable for coaches and managers to allow homophobic language to be used without comment or redress, just as it would for racist behaviour to go without reprimand. People within football will know whether this insight applies to their club and should act accordingly to show that they take homophobia seriously.

Effects of keeping sexuality secret

28.We acknowledge that the presence of homophobia within sport and the lack of LGB visibility may often have a damaging effect on those who feel alone or that they cannot be open about their sexuality. Nigel Owens told us about the damaging effects that this had on him and his mental health, detailing his feelings of being suicidal and the huge impact this had on both him and his family.42 It is important to acknowledge just how much of an impact that keeping sexuality a secret may have. We are grateful to both Tom Bosworth and Nigel Owens for telling us about their very personal experiences of this and acknowledge that this is something that is likely to be faced by large numbers of people across the country. Conversely, we have heard throughout our inquiry that coming out often has a positive impact on an athlete’s performances, underlining how personal happiness is often linked to success. We were told by John Amaechi that the pressure of keeping one’s sexuality a secret often means the difference between “being good or great”.43 Tom Bosworth told us that his performances improved after coming out, saying:

I am so glad I did, because I was asked that question, “Would it change your life completely?” and I said, “No, not at all”. It has, all for the better. My performances this year, I am still in shock, and that is perhaps because I have no concerns, no worries at all, that final little piece of the jigsaw, so I am so glad I did that.44

29.A possible further effect of the unwillingness of sport to confront homophobia has been hinted at after recent sexual abuse allegations within football came to light. One of those who came forward, David Eatock, a former Newcastle United player, said the following when going public with his allegations:

I was embarrassed. I’m not homophobic by any stretch of the imagination but I was worried that people were going to think I was gay and that I must have encouraged it.45

It must be considered that the attitudes of those in football to homosexuality may have contributed to a culture of silence and therefore prevented sexual abuse allegations from coming to light earlier. It was tragic that when David Eatock spoke last year about being a victim of sexual abuse from his football coach in the 1990s, he said that he had been afraid to report the abuse in case people thought that he was gay and to blame for it.

2 Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Racism in Football, Second Report of Session 2012–13, HC 89, para 18

3 Out on the Fields: The first international study on homophobia in sport, Denison E, Kitchen A. (2015), p46–47

4 Ibid. p12

5 Ibid. p53

11 ‘LGB visibility’ is defined here as demonstrating the LGB community as representative and positive in society

12 Q 88

13 Oral and written evidence are published on the Committee’s website at http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/culture-media-and-sport-committee/inquiries/parliament-2015/homophobia-in-sport-15-16/publications/. Oral evidence is referred to in this Report by question number (‘Q x’)

14 Q 133

18 Ibid. Q 156

19 Ibid. Q 154

20 Q 177

28 Q 129

30 (HIS0029) (Amateur Swimming Association)

31 Q 180

32 Q 136

33 Q 134

34 Q 140

35 Out on the Fields Report, p17

36 Q 32

37 See also the previous Committee’s report on Women and sport

38 Out on the Fields Report, p25

39 (HIS0009) Sport Wales

40 Q 164

42 Q 165–168

43 Q 108

44 Q 107

10 February 2017