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John Amaechi OBE

Who Really Cares? A discussion of homophobia in sport

06 January 2017 | by John Amaechi OBE

The conversation on homophobia in sport in the UK is often hobbled by the prurient interest in the names of specific gay (and never lesbian) professional footballers. Other sports outside of football, women in sport, and sport outside of the most elite levels, are all overlooked or treated as an afterthought in the scramble for a tabloid-worthy headline.

Having been, in a previous life, a professional athlete, I know that despite the pressures and challenges they face, the challenges of a closeted Premier League footballer pale in comparison to those faced by similarly closeted young people without the resources to create their own supportive ‘microclimate.’

So why should I – why should we – care at all? Why not focus on education or the workplace?

As I sat in front of a panel of MPs preparing to give evidence to the Commons Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee in November I wondered exactly this. Why would an issue directly impacting only a sliver of society be worthy of this scrutiny?

As I doubted the purpose of the session and questioned whether there was anything of value I could truly add, a series of articles published in The Psychologist in 2006 popped into my head.

I’d first read the ‘sexuality special’ issue in 2010, which discussed how the obvious and overt prejudice of the 1970s and 1980s, although far from banished, had ‘evolved’ (if that is the right word) into a more ambivalent position towards LGBT persons (Hodges, 2003). The article went on to speak about how Psychology may have been complicit in this apathy.

I connected this stark warning to a 2016 article I penned for The Psychologist Guide… to Leadership. In it I wrote about my personal perspective that being acutely, and vigilantly, aware of your own power is the key to being a great leader. The metaphor I used (and still use) for this is that powerful people – and organisations – are giants. It’s true for the BPS and its members, for the politicians in front of me, and, in the context of this evidence, for me too.

I am 6’9” and – let’s be generous – 22 stone, and every day I have to remember that I have a disproportionate impact on the world. Just by entering a space, I change it. My facial expression can mean the difference between being seen as intimidating or empowering by those around me. My decision to intervene, or to stand by, while I see others behaving badly is extra-informative to the world. People seem to think that a powerful person who could intervene, but doesn’t, is thereby endorsing that behaviour.

These thoughts are why I ended up in front of the Select Committee. Like it or not, sport is one of the most influential social learning environments in British society. We are ‘told’ this by gratuitous governmental and tax-payer support of sport in the billions of pounds, by the primacy of sporting ‘role models’ (who so often fail to live up to that billing) and, of course, by the indoctrinating tribal powerhouse that is football.

One can argue that too many are influenced by sport – and I might even agree – but managing what is takes primacy over what should be.

Sport can reach with alacrity those parts of society in which theoretical and applied psychology are viewed with scepticism. So to readily influence sport’s leadership is one route we can take to help us achieve some useful shifts in society, in terms of homophobia, and beyond.


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