As much as we may pride ourselves on being an all-inclusive society with equality for all, there are unfortunately still instances of everyday discrimination, some of which occur in sports. Generally speaking, there are five main types of discrimination when it comes to participating in sports.
Feelings of racism still run strong around the world. In 2018, the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport recorded 52 instances of racial discrimination in sports in the United States and 137 internationally. This is a rise from the previous 41 and 79, respectively.
In 2017, the National Basketball Association star LeBron James had his home vandalized just the night before the game’s finals. A racial slur was spray-painted on his front gate as a possible hate crime, leading him to comment publicly that “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough.”.
Unfortunately, instances of racial discrimination in sports are not limited to bullying and harassment. Some sports are played in private clubs and gated behind paid memberships, such as golf and bowling, which may keep minority players away.
Women make up about 40 percent of athletes, but they only receive four percent of sports media coverage, according to The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. Sports was traditionally viewed as a male field. Although the rise of women’s teams gave the women a chance to participate as well, they are still much less represented than men, partly because their games are scheduled at less desirable times, leading to a discrepancy in income between women and men athletes.
Women athletes also frequently face stereotypes and discrimination from the public. They are usually sexualized in the media for their looks more than their skill, and the public tends to place more emphasis on their home and family life than their sports career.
Additionally, some women in sports became victims of harassment by their own coaches and doctors. One particularly notorious doctor was Larry Nassar under USA Gymnastics, who sexually assaulted 300 girls and 1 male under his care, receiving a sentence of 175 years in prison and 60 years for possession of child pornography.
Gender discrimination commonly applies to women. However, in some cases, men are also discriminated against, especially if they are perceived to be participating in a “feminine” sport such as gymnastics or dance.
Religious discrimination in sports can occur in many forms, from openly harassing athletes for their religious beliefs to not accommodating their religious needs. Some religions have special requirements that do not always align with how things are done in the world of sports. For example, Jewish players have to observe the Sabbath, meaning that they cannot play a sports game scheduled for a Saturday. Some religions observe regular fasting and cannot drink water while fasting. The Sikh do not cut their hair, so the men usually wear turbans. Muslim women have to wear a hijab for religious reasons and cannot reveal their bare arms and legs. This often makes sports attire problematic for players of such religions, especially with uniforms that are too revealing.
One case rose to international attention when a Muslim girls’ basketball player in Maryland was not allowed to play in a regional final due to her hijab. In 2017, Je’Nan Hayes was forced to sit out of her team’s final match as she had not provided official documentation proving she needed to wear the head scarf, despite having participated in 24 previous games without any comment from her coaches or officials.
Sexuality and Gender Identity Discrimination
The United States has the worst homophobia in sports according to the world’s first international study on homophobia in sports, Out On the Fields. It is no secret that LGBTQ+ athletes are often subject to physical, verbal and sexual assaults by their teammates, coaches, opponents and spectators. They often also face bullying and exclusion from team activities. Some are even denied the ability to play sports or participate in competitions when it is discovered that they are LGBTQ+.
Unfortunately, this problem is not only limited to professional sports players. Harassment, abuse and bullying also occur in daily Physical Education classes for every other child, usually with those perceived to be acting too much like the opposite sex. The study also found that discrimination against LGBTQ+ people can happen at sporting events even to those who are not participating, such as spectators at the stands.
One notable example of anti-homosexuality in sports was the Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland. She explained that one of the first things she brings up during a recruiting visit is that she “will not have [lesbian activity]” in her program, going on to state that “the kids are so relieved and the parents are so relieved”. Although Penn State later announced a policy on nondiscrimination and harassment, Portland continued to discriminate against lesbians, verbally abusing players whom she suspected were lesbians on the basis that they did not act “feminine enough”. In 2006, Portland removed Jennifer Harris from the team due to her perceived sexual orientation, resulting in a federal lawsuit filed by Harris against Portland, the athletic director, and the university. A review found that Portland had created a “hostile, intimidating and offensive environment” for Harris because Portland had perceived her to be a lesbian.
The controversy over intersex and transgender people playing in sports is perhaps a more complicated problem. This arises mostly from the concern that intersex and transgender people participating in the women’s categories would have an unfair advantage due to hormonal and physiological factors.
In the past, transgender people were not allowed to compete in sports as their identified gender. On the other hand, intersex people usually competed as their assigned sex (usually female), and these would often draw outrage in the media when people discovered that an athlete had an intersex condition. It was only in 2004 that the International Olympic Committee allowed transgender individuals to compete in the Olympic Games, after drawing up new guidelines regarding the participation of transgender athletes. These guidelines, requiring full medical and legal transition, were revised in 2015 to require only a declaration of gender from the athlete and a hormonal level close enough to the range for their identified gender.
Even if LGBTQ+ athletes have come a long way in sports, many of them are still frequent targets of discrimination and many yet are not openly out in their sporting teams.
Participating in sports as a disabled person can be financially and logistically difficult, especially for athletes that require special equipment due to their disabilities.
With events such as the Paralympics, some may think that people with disabilities are adequately given opportunities to participate in sports. However, these opportunities tend to be few and far between for many who simply wish to participate alongside everyone else. Besides, there are many forms of disabilities. In some cases, disabled athletes may be competing with “regular” athletes but not receive any accommodations for their needs. Sometimes, this does not occur due to active discrimination, but rather a lack of understanding on the organizer’s part. Others may not wish to do the extra work to accommodate those with disabilities.
Although global disability recognition is making its progress, many still discriminate against disabled persons when it comes to activities such as sports in everyday life, especially if the person’s disability is seen as a hinderance.