Friday, December 7, 2012

Sport's Big Society Influence by Adele Baumgardt

Adele Baumgardt is vice-chair of Sport Wales and has previously worked at the Equal Opportunities Commission. Now a self -employed consultant on all aspects of equality and diversity, Adele's experience includes delivering equality strategies in public, private and voluntary sectors with particular expertise in the new 'positive' equality duty.

The reasons why people participate in sport and get hooked on it for life are as wide and varied as people themselves. And so are the reasons why people don’t.

For many of us it is the first or most memorable experience that defines whether we will ever try to participate in any kind of activity let alone a more formalised sporting opportunity.

The research that Sport Wales have done in partnership with Stonewall Cymru has shown what  I think many of us always thought was the case, that for gay, lesbian and bi sexual people, those experiences are often profoundly negative and linked to their sexuality.

We believe in the transformational potential of sport for people, not just in terms of health outcomes but in how rich their lives can be. Sport is about activity in all its forms but it is also about who you meet, play with and socialise with around the activity.

If we have a culture in the places where sporting opportunities are offered which prevents or puts certain people off, simply because of their sexuality, at school, at the leisure centre or in a club environment, it is incumbent on all of us involved in sport to change how we deliver it.

If we truly want to see sport for all then we have to do this. And this research helps us understand what happens and what needs to be done. It is of course only the first step to both understanding and changing things, but by genuinely investigating and seeking individuals experience we have taken the first step towards understanding. Now we have to act – across the whole of the sporting community.

In my experience changing cultures is the most difficult, frustrating and time intensive work in meeting equality challenges. People’s attitudes and beliefs are profound, personal and deeply held. Beliefs and values come from school, society, media, experience, our parents and of course our sporting heroes among other things. And our behaviour is undoubtedly based on our beliefs.

Organisations display ‘group’ behaviour based on values which can be led from the top or the bottom. And it seems to me that sport has more potential than most sectors to influence what kind of a society we become. ‘Group’ behaviour is certainly more clearly and often displayed in sport than in most other environments. In many ways political correctness and equality legislation has driven discrimination ‘underground’. So if an organisation doesn’t want to employ women or black people, they don’t - but their policies and recruitment procedures won’t be explicit about that – it is the culture and beliefs of the leaders and the front line staff that create an office where women or black people are not represented and not welcome. The culture often manifests itself in the banter, humour and ‘feel’ of the organisation.

So our sporting hero’s and role models have a fantastic opportunity to influence particularly our young people on how they feel about sport and activity. How our clubs and sporting venues manage and address inappropriate behaviour matters beyond the people on the terraces.  I don’t want to take my grandchildren to a football or rugby match at a weekend where they hear regular homophobic chanting from the stands. I don’t want them to grow up thinking that that kind of behaviour or belief is what being involved with football or rugby means.

And I certainly don’t want them, or any other child in Wales to have their opportunity to participate or excel in sport dictated to by the attitude and behaviour they encounter because of their sexuality.

So I think this research is a really important step in helping us understand what causes gay, lesbian and bi sexual people to be excluded from sport for life.
All sectors across sport from clubs, governing bodies, local authorities, role models and casual spectators now all have good reason why we should challenge behaviour and tackle barriers. Challenging banter and inappropriate behaviour can be uncomfortable and difficult – but without it we won’t change culture.

Coming home from Plas Menai last week through the floods and storms meant I ended up on a train to Birmingham with some football supporters on their way to an evening match. Listening to them enthusing about sport and their knowledge of football, their teams, and technical ‘sport’ issues was inspiring. But what they all said was that no women or any of their gay friends would come to the match because they didn’t feel safe and they were able to cite several instances where verbal abuse had made their friends feel so unsafe they would never risk going to a match again.

Sporting experiences enrich all our lives. If we allow behaviour, attitudes or language to intimidate or frighten people from attending or taking part then we will continue to deliver sporting opportunities in the ways we always have to the people who have always participated. Unintentional offence or threat is no excuse and has the same effect of excluding people as deliberate ones. The solutions to challenging and changing this lies with us all – if we are brave enough to face it!