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1 June 2015 Edition

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Sport for all


Many highlighted the contrast between the GAA ban on referee David Gough wearing a rainbow armband at Croke Park and allowing the black armbands frequently worn by players as a mark of respect

SPORTING ASSOCIATIONS have not taken a position on the marriage referendum in Ireland. However, even after the votes have been cast and counted, the time has come for sport on this island to take a stance on equality.

Earlier this year, inter-county referee David Gough planned to wear a rainbow armband at Croke Park whilst officiating at a National League match between Tyrone and Dublin. Gough’s personal gesture to highlight homophobia and the struggle for equality in sport (as well as his support for a ‘Yes’ vote) was vetoed by the GAA. Although the rainbow symbol is identified around the world with the LGBT community, the GAA branded the gesture as a ‘political act’. Following that episode, many highlighted the contrast between the ban imposed on David Gough and the black armbands frequently worn by players as a mark of respect. When a governing body assumes the authority to decide that something personal is actually political, a potentially dangerous precedent is being set.

Homophobia and prejudice still abounds in sport. 

Recently, the results of a large-scale research study called Out on the Fields were published. The study was overseen by a panel of university professors in the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland. In total, 9,500 gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight people were interviewed. 

The findings revealed that the United States was the most intolerant society of all those surveyed towards gay and lesbian athletes. According to the study, 70% of gay and straight Americans view homophobia as prevalent in sport. For those gay and lesbian athletes and players interviewed in America, 60% believe that they are “not accepted at all” or “only a little” in sport.

The study also revealed more about the experience of gay and lesbian sportspeople in Ireland. 

Of those surveyed, 83% of gay men and 89% of lesbians said that they were subject to verbal threats of harm. The majority of those surveyed expressed the view that homophobia is more common in sport than in the rest of Irish society. It was also said by 82% of those surveyed that someone who is openly gay would not be safe spectating in a stand at a sporting event.


Donal Óg Cusack

Among the recommendations to emerge from the Out on the Fields research study is a call for PE teachers to receive training in spotting homophobia. Another recommendation suggests a programme of education to encourage straight sportsmen and women to support any of their peers struggling with their own sexuality within the sporting environment.

Part of the difficulty, however, is the sporting environment itself. 

Social scientists have described sport as a social institution “which in its dominant forms was created by men for men”.  More significantly, sport espouses and embeds culturally-defined values of masculinity such as toughness, aggression and competitiveness. Some may argue that’s par for the course. Yet implicit in this is the gendering of sport in ways which have far-reaching social implications. Many overt examples exist of this process. How often now do we hear commentators or coaches talk about the need for players and teams to ‘man-up’? Whilst this may be dismissed as innocent and without intent, language is a valuable and powerful instrument of social influence. That is why verbal homophobic abuse in sport should be viewed as a weapon of harm and punished accordingly. 

The positive value of role models in sport cannot be underestimated. The fact that some of those role models such as Donal Óg Cusack and Diarmuid Connolly have openly come out as gay is a positive contribution to long-term change. Outside sport, other significant contributions have been made to the change agenda. 

Remarks by former President of Ireland Mary McAleese in calling for a ‘Yes’ vote in the marriage equality referendum and talking about her son who is gay will hopefully help to reduce social stigma.

The ethos and environment within which sport is promoted must be predicated on equality and genuine inclusivity. That is not political. It is a responsibility of sport and sporting bodies in Ireland to be aggressively and proactively anti-discrimination. Only then can it be said with sincerity that all the children of the nation are cherished equally.



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