Homophobic & Sexist Language in sport: Monash research


sports inclusion project monash university erik denison
Image: Facebook

World-first research by Monash University examines motivations for homophobic and sexist slurs in sport and potential solutions. Researchers presented their findings at the Tenth International Conference on Sport & Society at the Ryerson University in Toronto Canada tonight. Earlier today, Erik Denison, lead researcher of the Sports Inclusion Project gave us an insight into the findings.

Erik Denison said his team chose hockey for the study as a world leading sport in terms of showing support for the LGBT community.

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“The National Hockey League is the only sport league in the world where every single team holds pride games. Those games raise awareness of the discrimination LGBT people experience.

“We also wanted to research hockey because it remains the only major pro sport to never have a gay athlete come out either while playing or in retirement. This seemed odd to us because of the NHL’s proactive approach in this space.

Erik Denison and the team at the Sports Inclusion Project surveyed an international sample of male ice hockey players to answer a long-standing question.

Why is homophobic and sexist language common in male team sports?

sports inclusion project monash university erik denison
Erik Denison. Image: Monash University

Researchers associate exposure to homophobic language with high rates of suicide and self-harm among LGBT youth.

Furthermore, sexist and homophobic language deter both straight girls and LGBT youth from participation in sport.

Researchers surveyed all semi-professional ice hockey teams in the Australian Ice Hockey League.

Additionally, they surveyed a further 146 players from 11 countries including Australia, the USA, Canada, and various European countries.

Key Findings

The results indicated players from all countries commonly hear homophobic and sexist language.

68% of players heard teammates use homophobic slurs such as fag or dyke in the two weeks before completing the survey. 60% admitted using the slurs themselves in the same time period.

62% of players heard teammates use sexist language like bitch and slut. 41% admitted to using the same language themselves.

Also, 27% of those surveyed heard coaches using homophobic slurs.

Disconnect between perception and reality

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Researchers did not conclude homophobia or sexism motivated the language but rather a desire for social acceptance. Simply, players wanted to conform to a perceived cultural norm.

The research indicated a very large disconnect between positive attitudes about gay people and the negative language used.

86% of participants disapproved of jokes about gay people, and 77% said they would stop others bullying a gay teammate.

Furthermore, 82% of players believed ‘a gay person would feel welcome’ on their team, despite the regular use of homophobic slurs.

Similarly, 79% of players disapproved of jokes about women and 80% welcomed the idea of a female coach.

Interestingly, 86% said they would want their daughter to play hockey. Again this illustrated a disconnect around their perception of the environment, because sexist language is used regularly and would be unwelcoming to girls.

Monash University sport inclusion project homophobic slurs
Participant responses to a Sports Inclusion Project question asking why homophobic language is used.

Implications

It is likely young hockey players ‘learn’ to use this language, and the consequent social benefits, from a young age.

Therefore, programs developed to end this language should focus on breaking this cycle. That requires targeting both adult role models and young men when they enter hockey environments.

Programs should not focus on ending homophobia or sexism because players do not perceive the language as either.

The findings provide direction to researchers, policy makers, and sport leaders developing focused programs to stop homophobic language in sport. Homophobic and sexist language is associated with high rates of suicide. It also causes lower sport participation rates among both gay and bisexual males and straight females.

Sports Inclusion Project conclusions

“The good news is that we didn’t find high levels of homophobia or sexism among hockey players.,” said Erik Denison.

“Nevertheless, the bad news is homophobic and sexist language is rife in hockey environments.

“However, the language is generally not used with any negative intent. Unfortunately, the LGBT young people do not know this.

“There is a lot of research showing young LGBT people exposed to homophobic language are significantly more likely to attempt suicide or self-harm. The homophobic and sexist language used also makes both straight girls as well as LGBT people feel unwelcome in hockey.

“The Sports Inclusion Project will support hockey, and the LGBT organisation it works with, You Can Play, to use the results of the research to improve and refine its programs and approaches.”

About Monash University

Monash, Australia’s largest university (77,000 students), is a world leader in behavioural science and prejudice reduction research. The University is leading international and world-first studies in multiple sports, including  American football, rugby, ice hockey, and soccer, examining why homophobic and sexist language remains common, testing programs to change this language, and identifying ways to encourage more girls to play traditionally male team sports.

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