A new study of young athletes shows a tenuous relationship between homophobic language and the rejection of gay athletes. And of course it validates what we at Outsports have been saying for years about the use of gay slurs.

The study was helmed by Erik Denison, lead researcher, sports inclusion project, behavioural science laboratory at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Denison and his team studied the actions and attitudes toward gay athletes of rugby players age 16 to 20 across southern Australia. Researchers collected 329 surveys from the athletes, only one of whom identified as gay.

Denison had previously been a lead on the “Out on the Fields” study. It demonstrated the fear that homophobic language creates in sports, but it fell short of telling the real story of acceptance in sports. It relied too heavily on the perceptions that lesbian, gay and bi athletes had about hearing anti-gay language, and it didn’t have enough focus on the actual acceptance of LGB athletes.

Denison’s new study offers an insightful “step two” in the understanding of homophobia in sport, looking at the issue from the perspective of mostly young non-LGBTQ about the messages they intend to send with their language and focusing on the actions and meaning of actual behavior.

To be clear, nobody at Outsports or involved with the study thinks anti-gay language — particularly calling people “fags” or “poofs” — has any proper place in sports. That language should be driven out of sports forever because of their historic use in sports, and the message LGBTQ athletes receive when they hear their teammates use that kind of language.

Yet now we have more evidence that that language doesn’t actually reflect a hatred of gay people.

Large majority of athletes support gay athletes, oppose bullying

Denison’s study is a hopeful one for gay athletes, showing that youth who use these words in sports don’t actually reject gay teammates, and they are not trying to express homophobia with their language.

How does Denison’s study show this?

  • 77% of those asked said they would be comfortable with a gay teammate
  • 83% believe a gay player would feel welcome on the team
  • 87% believe diversity makes a team stronger

Yet these same kids engage in or hear the very language that scares gay athletes from coming out.

  • 78% have heard teammates use terms like “fag” or “poof” in the last two weeks
  • 59% say they have used those words themselves in that time
  • 47% say they have personally been called those words

Again, 83% of these same respondents — the vast majority — believe a gay player would be welcome on his team.

They hear the words. They use the words. Yet they believe in and advocate for inclusion.

So what’s the disconnect?

Using gay slurs doesn’t mean they hate gay people

“This language is likely self-perpetuating,” Denison wrote, “with boys picking up the norm around this language from a young age. Equally, unlike with racist language, where their victim is visible, the lack of openly gay players in male sport means it’s impossible to see the harm of homophobic language.”

So the language is of a by-gone era, but no one has figured out how to stop it. Boys use the words because that’s what they’re conditioned to do. And, like Kobe Bryant in 2011, they don’t even realize they are hurting a gay athlete by calling someone a “fag” or a “poof.” They don’t even realize it.

This is a dynamic we’ve written about over and over again. Thanks to Denison and his team, we have an academic study to back it up.

Even understanding this dynamic, it remains super important to educate people on the importance of not using these words and to stamp it out wherever it shows up.

On the flip side, the study should also give hope to gay athletes living in fear. Even if your teammates or friends are using this language, it’s still likely that they will support you if you come out to them.

That message of support is just as important to spread as the admonishment of the use of gay slurs. We should be empowering and building confidence in those we currently tell to be afraid of sports.