Homophobia in sports: U of T expert says culture of sports needs to change

Last month, Toronto Blue Jays' Kevin Pillar was suspended over a homophobic slur he yelled at an opponent (photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

With baseball season in full swing and Pride Month winding up, U of T's Jelena Damjanovic talks to Associate Professor Caroline Fusco about homophobic slurs and sports.

Toronto Blue Jays’ Kevin Pillar got a two game suspension recently for a homophobic slur against Atlanta Braves pitcher Jason Motte, while Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks was fined $10,000 for shouting the same slur at a referee. Fusco, of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, talks about what, if any, consequences fines and suspensions can have on eliminating homophobia from sports.

“When a president of a country can attribute his sexist and violent language towards women as ‘just locker room talk’ and be forgiven for it, then we still have an enormous problem with the representation, and reality, of sports,” says Fusco (below).

Her research interests include ethics, social justice and equity in sport and physical activity. She also led the Change Room Project, a tri-campus exhibit that highlighted the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students in locker rooms and change rooms.

In the case of Pillar, he took to Twitter to issue an apology, while Getzlaf expressed remorse for using vulgar language. When is an apology enough? Is it ever enough?

If you reflect on both these men’s apologies, you will note that they are quite different. Getzlaf accepted responsibility for shouting the word and the $10,000 fine imposed by the NHL. But, he blamed other people for thinking the word was homophobic and refused to apologize for saying it. 

Unlike Getzlaf, Pillar launched a full apology the day after the incident and talked about feeling embarrassed and ashamed. He apologized personally to Jason Motte, to the Atlanta organization, their fans, and most importantly the LGBTQ community. We also know now that the salary he lost in the two-game suspension was donated to the You Can Play Project and PFLAG. Pillar will also take part in sensitivity training with PFLAG. He caught the ceremonial first pitch from Michelle Cherny, a member of Pride Toronto’s board of directors on June 1, 2017, a date which marks the beginning of Toronto’s Pride month.

If players are really serious about accepting responsibility, they should go beyond apologies and reach out to women and LGBTQ groups who are demeaned and violated by the sexist and homophobic language that has characterized sports and locker room cultures for generations

What did you think about the measure taken against Pillar and Getzlaf by the Jays' and Ducks' management?

These athletes earn million-dollar salaries so I would think that the paltry fines are not a deterrent, per se. But adequate suspensions are worthwhile because they may impact the team’s performance and in a team sport that might possibly communicate to other players, managers, trainers and staff that their particular sporting organization or governing body is serious about certain issues and cares for their fans from diverse groups, who, after all, are the consumers of sports teams. 

More important would be how endorsement companies react. Most organizations have been forthcoming in their apologies stating that they are extremely disappointed in the actions of a particular player because their club does not agree with this attitude, and that they are proud to be inclusive and be associated with initiatives like the You Can Play Project, citing that they will use the incident as an opportunity to educate players, staff and fans. 

How do you feel about some people saying that homophobic slurs aren’t necessarily meant to offend members of the LGBTQ community, that they are just swear words used to vent frustration?

Obviously, I am going to say that players cannot hide behind the thin veneer of emotionality or frustration. These kinds of reactions would not be tolerated in other situations where emotions can be at play – government settings, university settings or in public and private sector business. Indeed, in those kinds of spaces a person might be reprimanded or fired for such utterances. There is absolutely no justification for this kind of language from players who have a public profile, and who can be very influential in the lives of children and adults. Now that marginalized groups have a voice, they are challenging incidents like these and saying that they should not be excused as, “something I said in the heat of the moment,” but instead such utterances should be regarded within the histories and legacies of violence that have been attached to them for many people. 

Have there been fewer incidences of homophobic slurs in sports since sport leagues have started to take a tougher stance towards them? 

Some research in the sociology of sport, which has examined homophobia and heteronormativity in sport, believes that “homohysteria” in sports has abated. Others suggest that it continues to define sports spaces. These recent incidents, which align with a litany of previous incidents of homophobic slurs – sports stars such as [NBA's Kobe] Bryant, [NBA's Joakim] Noah, [NHL's Wayne] Simmonds, [NHL's Andrew] Shaw, and [MLB's Yunel] Escobar have all been accused of uttering homophobic language – demonstrate that the logic of professional men’s sport is still mired in the celebration of patriarchal and heteronormative domination.

Historically, sports have been patriarchal, colonial, heteronormative, classist and speciesist spaces and until these things change then these incidents will (re)occur. Here, of course, I have just been talking about professional sport – there is all kinds of evidence that demonstrates that these kinds of representations, practices and discourses are rampant and (re)produced in children’s sports. And, when a president of a country can attribute his sexist and violent language towards women as “just locker room talk” and be forgiven for it, then we still have an enormous problem with the representation, and reality, of sports. There is no getting rid of these incidences until the culture of sports changes. 



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