Levelling the Playing Field for LGBT Athletes

The opening matches of the Six Nations rugby championship this week offered the latest occasion to see our athletic heroes compete at sport’s highest level. It also heralded the start of another major sport competition without open LGBT athletes.

By even the most conservative estimates, there could be close to a dozen LGBT athletes in this competition – a small percentage still of the total number of LGBT athletes in sport – yet they remain invisible heroes on the field of play. This lack of visibility and acceptance are problems across sport where discrimination lingers and perpetuates an environment out of step with the mores of our broader culture.

Despite the increasing acceptance of the LGBT community, LGBT athletes and fans are still cruelly distanced from the full embrace of the community around sport. While other elements of society are beginning to realise the tangible and intangible benefits of LGBT inclusion, sport is far from an inclusive industry where all LGBT individuals are accepted and free to bring their whole selves to work. Everyone loses in this arrangement.

Still, in light of the advancements throughout society, I remain optimistic and believe with continued effort we’re nearing a tipping point for LGBT acceptance in sport. What is needed now is a strong and high profile push by the businesses around sport to end LGBT discrimination once and for all.

This week, I joined an unprecedented coalition of athletes, sponsors, rights holders and LGBT allies at the Team Pride conference to work within sport to foster an LGBT inclusive environment. The group includes some of the biggest sponsors and professional clubs in sport, which maintain real influence over the practices of the teams they support.

The global sport sponsorship market is estimated to be valued at $45billion, with sponsors of international rugby union, for example, spending more than £125million on the sport last year. These sponsorship agreements may provide the sponsors with special access to unique assets and highly desirable audiences, but they also present the risk of aligning their people, business and brand with organisations that do not reflect their corporate principles.

The corporate world has seen that LGBT inclusivity enables them to attract and retain top talent and win the business and loyalty of discerning consumers. Inclusive organisations also innovate and adapt more quickly in changing times. It is time that the experiences of corporate sponsors inside their own organisations on LGBT issues translate into more inclusive sponsorship agreements and for good reason.

It is in the best interest of sponsors to get out in front of this issue. Attitudes toward inclusivity and acceptance are shifting quickly and sponsors that do not lead on LGBT inclusivity risk finding themselves left behind with the very clients and consumers they are trying to reach through their sport sponsorships.

Creating an environment that is safe and empowering for LGBT athletes should be a top priority for all stakeholders involved in sport. We must commit to levelling the playing field. Only once all athletes can bring their full selves to the field of play will we be able to see our sport heroes for who they really are.