The issue of bullying in sport
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Minority athletes often face intense bullying, due to their background and identity, and sport federations and organisations at both grassroots and elite levels must do more to change this.

October is marked as anti-bullying month in many countries across the world, and is also observed as LGBTQ+ history month in the US and Canada. We spoke to Amazin LeThi to understand how sport can be a safe space for LGBTQ+ persons and the steps that need to be taken to ensure that no one endures homophobic bullying in sports.

Bullying in sport is experienced by all minority athletes, regardless of whether they are a sexual minority, a gender minority or a racial minority. Amazin recalls the EURO 2020 finals from this past summer to emphasise just how bad the bullying for minority athletes can be, highlighting that “footballers that are Black or Asian suffer a tremendous amount of bullying – white athletes just do not encounter these kinds of microagressions.” How do these instances then impact the mental health of these athletes? And how does it impact the youth that are wanting to enter this space?

The responsibility of elite sport organisations

Inclusive policies and trainings

Amazin says that sport organisations and federations need to do a better job. This could start with federations having explicit policies against discrimination and a zero-tolerance policy towards any bullying and harassment. Such policies must be complemented with sensitivity trainings for anti-bullying, cultural differences and homophobia. The best way to approach this, she says, is for sport organisations to seek assistance and support from anti-bullying and LGBTQ+ organisations.

Further, organisations need to work to ensure that this sensitivity and equal opportunity is at all levels of the organisation – thus, not only do we need diverse athletes, but also coaches, referees and executives from different communities. Support must be extended to all levels.

But this is just the bare minimum. Beyond this, federations need to take on an active role in building anti-bullying initiatives.

Campaigns and other initiatives

Amazin gives the example of the Rainbow Laces campaign, organised by Stonewall in the UK, for the football community to come out and support the LGBTQ+ community. It has been a wildly successful campaign, which has garnered much publicity and support. Yet, she notes that even with such campaigns, there hasn’t been much change on the ground – there are still no out footballers are the top level of the men’s game. For her, this highlights how there is a disconnect between the campaign and the athletes – there is something else that is preventing the creation of a safe and welcoming space.

The fan base

One issue is the fan base, which in a sport like men’s football is hyper-masculine and can be very toxic. Amazin believes that stopping the sale of alcohol during matches could change the fan base, making it more family friendly and safer for those athletes that already face a lot of bullying. In the EU, spectators can still drink alcohol at matches, and there is an ongoing discussion in the UK to lift the ban on alcohol sales during matches.

Another space where much of the bullying happens is online, and Amazin believes much stricter action needs to be taken by social media companies against this. Online bullying is on the rise, especially for minority athletes, and the anonymity that the internet offers is only making it worse. Sport federations, along with social media companies, need to come up with a sustainable solution to this issue. 

Change starts at the grassroots

Bullying isn’t just a problem in elite sport, however. As Amazin notes, those athletes that have made it to the professional level all started out somewhere, and they can track a lifetime of hate, which probably started at the grassroots level. And the fact that most LGBTQ+ athletes come out when they are close to retiring goes to show that their start in sports was also not a safe environment for them. So, how can grassroots sport be made into a safe space for minority participants?

Grassroots sports can start at the same place as sport federations and organisations – that is, they should have explicit anti-bullying and non-discriminatory policies, with zero tolerance for homophobia or any other form of discrimination. Further, they also need to have cultural sensitivity trainings, to ensure that the policies are substantively followed through.

Often, grassroots sports are lacking in funding, and hence do not have the capacity to follow through on trainings and capacity-building programmes. However, they could look into collaborating with local organisations working on anti-bullying initiatives to build more culturally sensitive and diverse clubs.

Minority athletes are often one of one in a team – and they are continually singled out for their differences. This anti-bullying month, sport organisations, federations and clubs, both at the elite and grassroots levels, must ensure that they build safe and welcoming spaces for all athletes, regardless of their background or identities.