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Social Sustainability in Sports: Tackling Gay Intolerance for Sochi 2014

By Laura Clise & Susan McPherson There has been increased visibility as of late for the great strides professional sports teams and leagues are making toward reducing the overall environmental impact associated with event operations. The greening of sport spans baseball teams, football stadiums and even NASCAR. One hundred and ninety-five professional and collegiate teams are now members of the Green Sports Alliance—up from 11 members just two years ago. Yet the greening of sports, consistent with business operations and strategy, is not all there is to an assessment of the potential and actual sustainability impact of professional sports. Diversity initiatives intended to leverage sport as a platform for greater inclusion are gaining momentum, as sports organizations are uniquely positioned to promote tolerance and human rights. The 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, have sparked a fresh dialogue around LGBT discrimination due to the anti-gay legislation passed in that country earlier this year. The controversy fueled efforts already underway to leverage sport as a platform for greater Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) inclusion. Creating a more inclusive environment reflects a tradition of sport as a means of influencing cultural norms from gender, to race, and increasingly, homophobia—a tradition that stretches back to the days of Jackie Robinson. Brendon Ayanbadejo, an Athlete Ally Ambassador and Former Super Bowl Champion, has said it best: “Sports do not discriminate. If you are young or old, tall or short, male or female, gay or straight, all that really matters is how well you play and contribute to your team.” In the context of Sochi 2014, Athlete Ally, the leading nonprofit focused on ending homophobia in sports, has teamed up with international LGBT advocacy leader, All Out, to launch an initiative that engages Olympic athletes to support LGBT equality. The effort cleverly steers clear of potential infringement on Russian law, focusing instead on leveraging the language of Principle 6 (P6) of the Olympic charter, which states opposition to any form of discrimination. While the Athlete Ally/All Out P6 Campaign is the latest initiative to address homophobia in sports, there has been a movement percolating over the past few years, spurred by the growing number of “out” athletes (including U.S. women’s soccer players, Megan Rapinoe & Lori Lindsey, and NBA basketball player Jason Collins) along with the corresponding voices of straight athletes (including Andy Roddick, Kobe Bryant and Chris Kluwe) who support them. This past June, Nike hosted the second LGBT sports forum at its headquarters which included participation by the NCAA, ESPN and the It Gets Better campaign. The P6 campaign highlights a recurrent theme regarding the business case for LGBT inclusion. Having written two previous pieces on the business case and implications for LGBT equality, the fundamental drivers remain the same. Companies are increasingly recognizing the recruitment and marketing opportunities that accompany alignment between core values and external policy positions. In 2012, Biz Case for LGBT Equality was written and performed for a Net Impact session of the same name. For sports brands and organizations, LGBT equality isn’t simply about diversity and inclusion, it’s also about courting the next generation of fans, the majority of who support LGBT equality. The issues raised by the Russian anti-gay legislation passed early this year has already bumped up against business – from Vodka boycotts, to rallies targeting U.S. companies like Coca-Cola who have domestically made support for LGBT equality a business and policy priority. Chad Griffin, President of the Human Rights Campaign has called on the CEOs of Olympic corporate sponsors to play an active role in affirming their support for LGBT equality. Earlier this year, Nike launched a #BeTrue product line, reflecting alignment between its internal commitment to inclusion, external policy support for diversity, and its core business mantra that everybody is an athlete. As the sports domain remains a challenging frontier for LGBT inclusion, the dissonance between the Russian law, Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, and the commitment that sponsoring companies articulate regarding diversity frames the broader challenge of incentivizing and supporting authentic leadership on the issue. By raising awareness and mobilizing the voices of Olympians and the broader international community, the P6 campaign emphasizes the importance of non-discrimination and its implications for business and society. P6 also highlights the importance of multi-stakeholder collaboration, with athletes, communities, companies, and the U.S. State Department all participating in the conversation. Athletic events, from the Olympics to the World Series to a middle school tennis tournament, have the potential to exemplify sport as a universal platform for greater inclusion, participation, and innovation for all. It’s time for sports organizations to step up and declare their commitment to inclusion—just as they have to being green. [Image credit: SouthEastern Star, Flickr]  
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