Last week, Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib made the unprecedented decision to declare himself gay, becoming the first active NFL player to do so. Nassib’s news came just days after 21-year-old runner Sha’Carri Richardson thanked his girlfriend after qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team. And just two days later, Kumi Yokoyama, a forward for the Washington Spirit women’s football team, became a transgender man.
The coming out of Nassib, Richardson and Yokoyama should not be newsworthy. But it’s newsworthy, for a reason that demands the attention of high schools, colleges, and the pros.
For years, LGBTQ youth and young adults have reported avoiding sports out of fear rather than lack of interest, citing experiences of locker room bullying and alienation of their teammates. Youth participation in sports was more common among LGBTQ youth who were less “out” of their LGBTQ identity, according to a study by The Trevor Project. One in three LGBTQ youth who were “unknown” to anyone about their sexual orientation participated in sports, compared to one in five who were all or most of their acquaintances.
A young LGBTQ told us, “I never hated sports, but hated the way I was treated by children and adults who played sports. The locker room has always been a nightmare, the athletic kids at my school hated me, the coaches at my school hated me, and even though I didn’t like mainstream sports much in general, I avoided athletic activities out of terror, no disinterest.
The point is, many LGBTQ people love sports, but sport remains a breeding ground for exclusion and hostility. The best hope for changing this culture rests on the shoulders of coaches and teammates. Whether they know it or not, they have the power – through words, behaviors and actions big and small – to improve acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ in sport.
These problems are particularly pronounced for transgender and non-binary youth, who over the past year have been subjected to relentless political attacks. While Nassib’s coming out will hopefully mean increased inclusion in sport, more than a dozen states are actively considering or implementing restrictions on transgender student athletes. On the first day of this year’s Pride Month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law prohibiting transgender women and girls from playing on school sports teams that match their gender identities.
The cruel irony is that so many trans youth are afraid to play sports in the first place because they don’t feel safe doing it, rather than because they don’t want to play. While we should all be working to block these attacks on young people, we need coaches and other athletes to lead the fight.
Managers and coaches play a vital role in creating the conditions that make athletes feel safe, a prerequisite for young people to perform at their best and reach their full potential. They also help cultivate manners for millions of fans.
We cannot stress enough the importance of supportive coaches, managers and trainers. Our research has shown that a single accepting adult can reduce the risk of attempted suicide among LGBTQ youth by 40%. For many young people, coaches, managers and trainers can be that adult.
At the organizational level, schools and professional sports associations can help break the silence and stigma surrounding being LGBTQ in sport, by fostering a safe, inclusive and supportive environment. This can include everything from zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination in the locker room and on the court, to ensuring that announcers and others consistently use an athlete’s appropriate pronouns, to actively celebrating pride and culture. LGBTQ, to be active spectators against anti-LGBTQ discourse. , to denounce legislation targeting transgender athletes.
The journeys of Nassib, Richardson and Yokoyama – and the support of their coaches and teammates – are incredibly encouraging, especially for LGBTQ fans and aspiring athletes. We can only hope that this is the harbinger of a more inclusive era of sport. I am writing this recognizing that not all LGBTQ people feel safe with their public identities, nor do they want to do it publicly. But at the end of the day, the burden of representation shouldn’t be placed on queer and trans people. It should be up to the rest of society to make sure that we create an environment where everyone can be themselves. Creating that environment can begin with coaches, on and off the pitch. It will literally save lives.
The potential lost in sport is deeply shattering – how many young LGBTQ athletes will be banned from playing, or will actively choose not to play for fear of being rejected just for who they are? Without institutional change, we will never know the full extent of athletic achievement and talent that we have missed.
Amit Paley is the CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth.
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