There’s a reason US sports haven’t had an Israel Folau-like scandal

Australian sports are lagging behind North America when it comes to LGBTQI inclusion, argue Erik Denison and Sarah Kogod, who work with US sporting codes like the NBA and NFL. But stepping up isn't just necessary to avoid future Israel Folau-like scandals. It's good business.

American sport has not been immune to professional athletes behaving badly. But no athlete has ever posted something anti-gay to social media, then refused to take it down. This is despite America’s deep evangelical roots, and fierce protection of freedom of speech.

How is it possible that America has never had an Israel Folau? We were asked this many times as we travelled Australia recently, speaking with sport administrators, corporate sponsors, and government about how to embrace diversity despite controversies plaguing the NRL, rugby, cricket, and soccer. And since then, Folau has lodged a claim with the Fair Work Commission, seeking $10m in damages.

Home of the brave, or the commercially savvy?

North America is way ahead of Australia when it comes to ending LGBTQI discrimination in sport.

The majority of North American teams and all major leagues hold Pride activities, spanning hundreds of teams, millions of fans and generating millions of dollars in merchandise sales for the NFL, NHL, NBA, and other leagues. It’s massive.

An NHL Pride game

Even the Yankees, one of the last teams to come to the Pride party, announced a yearly $50,000 scholarship fund for LGBTQI youth last year, which was awarded for the first time last month.

Meanwhile… in Australia

Australian sporting organisations are doing relatively little in the LGBTQI space, despite the five major codes signing a pledge to end homophobia in 2014. Interestingly, codes took collective action in the same-sex marriage campaign, it was widely supported by fans.

This means local sports organisations are leaving millions of dollars on the table by not seriously embracing Pride as a legitimate revenue stream. As more organisations in Australia, and especially sponsors, begin to understand this, those that don’t will fall behind and be forced to catch up.

Just one sport here (AFL) and one team (either St Kilda or the Swans) host an annual Pride game.

It was clear from conversations with sponsors that corporate Australia is also surprised and disappointed by the lack of action. Few partnership and commercial managers, with the exception of those from cricket and rugby union, attended events designed to bring sponsors and sports into the same room to discuss how to navigate LGBTQI inclusion.

But, tellingly, these events were well-attended by sponsors, who were curious about how they can encourage sports to do more and mitigate risk. Indeed, NAB shared why the bank has funded Pride Cup, and executives from ANZ, Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, Citi, Amex, BMW, Woolworths, Tab Corp, The Star, Vodafone, IAG, Virgin and the Victorian and Commonwealth governments attended.

(From left): Tony Dang (NAB), Tim Burke (Victorian government), James Lolicato (NAB’s Pride Cup), Sarah Kogod (You Can Play), Lisa Laing (St Kilda), Lisa Wade (NAB), Rachel Slade (NAB), Erik Denison (Monash), Drew Bradford (NAB)

How has America avoided its own Israel Folau scandal?

The situation with Israel Folau is complex. But America has never had an equivalent because of the proactive education players receive from their organisations, and the clear financial deterrent.

The US LGBTQI community was recently valued at over $1tn in spending power. Add to that the findings from global research which shows that young people are choosing to spend their money on brands that represent social good.

Pride jerseys for the Vancouver Canucks, an NHL team

Commercial partners are also asking much more from sponsorships than simply ROI. They also want partnerships to align with brand values and help achieve CSR objectives.

In 2017,  cricket’s major sponsor, Commonwealth Bank, started requiring all partners to commit to embracing diversity, and ended its longstanding $50m sponsorship of male cricket, moving its money to women’s, Indigenous, and disability cricket programs. And women’s rugby faced a similar situation with Buildcorp.

Engaging and supporting the LGBTQI community is good business.

What does Australian sport need to do to catch up?

Start small. Build your initiatives over multiple seasons. That’s the approach taken by the NHL, which started with a few Pride nights that grew to a multitude of events across the entire league.

And LGBTQI fans, athletes, and employees need to do a better job of making the business case for investing in Pride activations, focusing on ROI.

Doing nothing is not an option. Media, sponsors, the public, and government funders are paying much closer attention to how sports approach LGBTQI issues. And being proactive can help prevent, or at least mitigate, the damage caused by a homophobia-related incident, like that of Folau’s.

Sports organisations in Australia need to be on the right side of history. And, after the fallout of the Folau scandal, they need to act now.

Erik Denison is leading research at Monash University focused on finding effective solutions sport organisations can use to reduce homophobic language and embrace diversity. Previously, he was a senior communication and issues management strategist at WE Buchan.

Sarah Kogod works with You Can Play, an organisation that works with almost every major US sporting league, including the NHL, NBA, and NFL, teaching them to successfully navigate and engage with the LGBTQI community.


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