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‘Absolute fear’ keeps gay athletes in the closet

‘Absolute fear’ keeps gay athletes in the closet

L-R: Keegan Hirst, Nicola Adams and Casey Stoney at yesterday's Team Pride: LGBT in Sports event

Athletes, business leaders and influential figures from the world of sport took part in a ground-breaking conference yesterday at the Aon offices in the iconic Leadenhall Building in the city of London.

Team Pride: LGBT in Sports was created to bring the business world and sports world together to share resources, best practice and open up a dialogue on LGBT inclusion in the sporting world.

Why should the business world care about LGBT inclusion in sport? Chiefly because commercial sport depends on major sponsorship.

According to former NBA player John Amaechi, ‘the business world is starting to look at the people they’re spending £45billion worth of sponsorship on, and they’re saying “How can we spend with you if what you stand for is opposed to what we stand for?”’

John Amaechi addresses the Team Pride conference in London
John Amaechi addresses the Team Pride conference in London

Amaechi acted as MC for the day’s events, introducing presentations from sporting bodies, LGBT marketing consultants and advocacy organizations.

Panel discussions included how business is leading the field on LGBT inclusion, the role of the media, and coming out stories from athletes. The latter discussion included Olympic Gold Medal winner Nicola Adams, rugby player Keegan Hirst and footballer Casey Stoney.

Instrumental in the creation of the conference was Phil Clement, Chief Marketing Office for Aon; a multinational corporation that deals in risk management, insurance, investment banking and HR.

Aon is a sponsor of Manchester United, and Clement told Gay Star Business that it was around 18 months ago, over dinner with Richard Arnold, Group Managing Director with the football club, that the idea for Team Pride were born.

‘We had seen some things that day, at a football-related event at a hotel, that neither of us were very impressed by; a lack of inclusive behavior,’ he told Gay Star Business during the day’s lunch break.

‘I started telling Richard what we were doing as an organization on the topic and he was intrigued as to the resources we were putting into it and the training that we do. From that came the idea that I would reach out to sponsors to see if we could get some together to talk about this.

‘I’d say 98% of the people I approached thought it was a great idea. From there it snowballed. There was a latent need for an event like this.’

Other than being merely rhetoric, Team Pride attendees were encouraged to sign a pledge: ‘We are committed to creating and promoting an inclusive environment both on and off the field of play #TeamPride’

The Adidas Superstar pride-themed sneaker
The Adidas Superstar pride-themed sneaker

It’s clear that there’s still a need for the sporting world to make more of an effort when it comes to LGBT inclusion. Away from their panel discussion, both Nicola Adams and Casey Stoney told Gay Star Business that they knew of other athletes who choose to stay in the closet and who had asked them for advice.

‘Being so publicly out means that other people feel that can talk to me,’ said Stoney. ‘There have been a couple of players and I can only speak from my own personal experience, and whether they choose to take that advice is up to them.’

Stoney, former captain of the England women’s soccer team, came out at the age of 32. Asked why she hadn’t talked about her sexuality beforehand, she had a blunt answer.

‘Fear. Absolute fear. That’s what keeps gay athletes in the closet. I didn’t know where society was at and, for some reason, I’ve always a person who cares what other people think. But I got to 32, I was happy in my relationship, we were trying to have children, and I got to a stage where I thought, “Do you know what, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks – it’s about my happiness” – and having the ability to speak to so many people.”

Although conferences on diversity and inclusion can often re-tread familiar ground, Team Pride highlighted some interesting developments.

  • Adidas, one of the event’s sponsors, has now added a clause to all its contracts with athletes, specifically stipulating that the contract will not be terminated or modified if that athlete comes out as LGBT at any point. Last year, it produced a range of rainbow-decorated footwear to coincide with Pride season.
  • UK advocacy group Stonewall is to extend its rainbow laces campaign. The initiative, which has run for the past two years, has been previously sponsored by Paddy Power, but will now be seeking a new partner as the organization wants to send laces to schools, and ‘can’t do that with a betting shop sponsor’ explained Stonewall Chief Executive Ruth Hunt.
  • Manchester United, which was represented at the conference by Group Managing Director Richard Arnold, are to field a team against gay football club Stonewall FC as part of their efforts to demonstrate their LGBT inclusivity.
  • When representatives for NFL draft player Michael Sam planned his coming out, preparations were made weeks in advance in an attempt to control the media dialogue. A planned interview with ESPN was brought forward by 24 hours when they heard that the new was likely to be leaked, according to a presentation by Dr Daniel Durbin, Director, USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society.

Attendants heard many inspiring stories, and Amaechi urged them to go away and act on what they had heard.

What form this action will take will be interesting to see. Like multi-national corporations, sporting bodies face challenges promoting diversity and inclusion in parts of the world where LGBT people face legal issues.

Team Pride stimulated plenty of debate, but some questions remain unanswered, such as the acquiescence of sponsors over the World Cup taking place in Russia and Qatar (adidas is one of FIFA’s biggest financial supporters), and when we’re likely to finally see a Premiership soccer player come out as gay.