by George Cunningham & Umer Hussain, Texas A&M University
Author Note: Cunningham is with the Center for Sport Management Research and Education, Department of Health and Kinesiology, at Texas A&M University. He holds a faculty affiliate appointment in Women’s and Gender Studies. Hussain is with the Department of Health and Kinesiology at Texas A&M University. Address all correspondence to George B. Cunningham, Texas A&M University, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sport is a paradox when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. On the one hand, prejudice and discrimination limit the access and opportunities for LGBT athletes, coaches, and administrators. On the other hand, an increasing number of teams are reaching out to the LGBT community via various mechanisms. Further, sexual orientation diversity and inclusion is associated with improved experiences for athletes and coaches, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, as well as performance gains for teams and sport organizations. The purposes of this review article are to (a) overview the influence of sexual orientation diversity and inclusion in sport, and (b) offer sport and entertainment managers actions to make their workplaces diverse and inclusive. The authors first identify why the benefits of LGBT diversity and inclusion exist and then highlight how sport organizations can create and sustain a diverse and inclusive environment. The authors’ research shows that multilevel efforts are needed, with a focus on individual interactions, leader behaviors, organizational policies, and the interaction with the broader environment in which the sport organization is situated. Collectively, the authors present a case for LGBT diversity and inclusion, showing sport and entertainment managers (a) the benefits of such practices, and (b) steps to create and sustain inclusiveness in their work environments.
Sport is a paradox when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. On the one hand, LGBT athletes, coaches, and administrators face considerable bias in the way of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. A large-scale, international study of over 9,000 athletes illustrates this point (Denison & Kitchen, 2015).
Nearly one-in-four (73%) of the respondents indicated that youth sport was not a welcoming space for LGBT athletes, and even more (78%) expressed concerns for the safety of an openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual spectator at a major sport event. Finally, 84% of the study participants reported hearing homophobic language all the time, often, or sometimes in sport settings.
These findings mirror those from other studies showing that LGBT individuals face bullying (McCloughan, Mattey, & Hanrahan, 2015), that fans of some sports, like American football, are more likely than their peers to express prejudice (Lee & Cunningham, 2016), and that LGBT employees experience truncated career opportunities (Cunningham, Sartore, & McCullough, 2010).
Further, even though attitudes toward LGBT individuals have become more positive over time, they still persist, particularly toward transgender people participating in sport (Cunningham, Buzuvis, & Mosier, 2018; Cunningham & Pickett, 2018).
On the other hand, sport organizations routinely reach out to LGBT consumers, and there is evidence that inclusiveness predicts better organizational performance (Cunningham & Melton, 2011). For example, in 2019, all but two Major League Baseball (MLB) teams (both Texas teams, the Astros and Rangers) hosted a Pride Night, celebrating the LGBT community (Ennis, 2019).
In speaking of the importance of such events, former MLB commissioner Bud Selig commented: “As a social institution, our game has important social responsibilities. To this day, the vibrant legacy of Jackie Robinson revolves around inclusion, respect, and equal opportunity” (as cited in Brown, 2018). LGBT diversity and inclusiveness can also help spur performance.
The non-profit organization Catalyst noted, “successfully recruiting, retaining, developing, and advancing LGBTQ+ employees helps organizations compete effectively for talent, minimize attrition costs, and better access LGBTQ+ consumer markets” (LGBTQ+, n.d.).
Research evidence supports these contentions, as the presence of a diverse and inclusive workplace is associated with greater creativity (Cunningham, 2011a), employee authenticity and well-being (Cunningham, 2015a), and objective measures of performance (Cunningham, 2011b; Cunningham & Nite, 2018). Furthermore, both job seekers and potential fitness club clients are attracted to sport organizations the applicant believes values LGBT diversity (Cunningham & Melton, 2014; Melton & Cunningham, 2012).
Sport organization practices, when coupled with research evidence, point to the perplexing pattern: LGBT bias persists in sport at high levels, but sport organizations that are diverse and inclusive perform better, have better workplace environments, and have employees who feel more engaged. The purposes of this review article are to (a) overview the influence of sexual orientation diversity and inclusion in sport, and (b) offer sport and entertainment managers actions to make their workplaces diverse and inclusive.
To do so, we draw from our own scholarship, as well as that from organizational psychology, human geography, sport management, and sociology of sport. We offer the theoretical rationale behind the benefits of LGBT diversity and inclusion. Drawing from our extensive scholarship in this area, we provide concrete examples for moving forward.
Finally, given the interdisciplinary nature of our work, readers will undoubtedly observe that having diverse and inclusion workplaces benefit many organizations and people working in them—not just those in the sport context. Why, then, do we focus on sport business in this article?
The most obvious is the journal’s focus on sport and entertainment. More fundamentally, though, sport has long been a space where those who differ from the typical majority have faced barriers and poor experiences. We outlined some of these experiences for LGBT individuals in the opening paragraphs, showing that, in many ways, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination have become institutionalized (Cunningham, 2012a, 2019a, 2019b).
However, as was also illustrated in the introductory paragraphs, the very biases that are perpetuated in sport hurt those very sport organizations. It is this sport-focused dichotomy that we explore and explain in the spaces below.
The Science Behind LGBT Inclusion
As previously outlined, there are many benefits to LGBT inclusion. These include enhanced workplace creativity, consumer attraction to the sport organization, employee authenticity and well-being, and objective measures of performance. Why and how, though, do these benefits accrue? Work from geographer Richard Florida offers some clues.
Drawing from his research on the drivers of regional economic development, Florida (2012) developed creative capital theory. From this perspective, creative people are key to spurring economic growth, but they are not necessarily attracted to just any area. Instead, creative people seek out regions where there are many educated people, where technological advances occur, and where inclusion is the norm.
We focus the current discussion on the latter component: inclusiveness. Florida argued that LGBT inclusiveness is likely to send a strong signal about the area’s overall diversity and inclusion. After all, explicit manifestations of LGBT bias are more commonplace than are other forms of prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes.
In fact, in most states in the US, employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression is legal (Non-discriminatory Laws, 2017), even though the targets of such bias face negative psychological and physical health. Thus, when a community has pro-LGBT laws and demonstrates inclusiveness, the community runs against the norms in the US.
Florida reasoned and empirically demonstrated that such inclusiveness served to signal to others that the community was also accepting of and open to all kinds of differences. And, it was these regions—inclusive and accepting of all kinds of people—that were most attractive to creative people.
We drew from these ideas related to regional economic development and investigated whether they were applicable at the sport organization level. The first study (Cunningham, 2011a) included an analysis of the connection among LGBT diversity, inclusion, and creativeness.
The sample included administrators from intercollegiate athletic departments in the US. Results indicated that sexual orientation diversity of the staff did not, by itself, influence department creativity. However, when the department was diverse and characterized by a strong commitment to diversity (i.e., inclusive), workplace creativity was high. These results suggest that both diversity and inclusiveness are needed for creative outcomes.
We also tested the possibility stemming from creative capital theory that people interpreted LGBT inclusiveness as a signal that the organization was diverse and inclusive across a wide spectrum of differences (Cunningham & Melton, 2014). College students reviewed the advertisement for a new gym opening in town. It contained the name of the facility, a list of amenities, and the cost of membership. We varied half of the advertisements by including a rainbow flag and commitment to LGBT inclusion statement, but these items were missing on the other half.
Consistent with the theory, people thought that the flyer with the LGBT-inclusive statement would be diverse and inclusive based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Such perceptions were important for women, and especially those who valued fairness and equality in society, as these individuals expressed interest in joining the club. Importantly, the inclusive statement did not necessarily deter men or people who did not hold such fairness values. These findings are consistent with our earlier research focusing on job applicants (Melton & Cunningham, 2012), as they were more attracted to organizations they believed were LGBT inclusive.
An underlying premise of creative capital theory is that creative people want to associate with and live in diverse areas. We have made similar arguments for sponsors and sport organizations in general (Cunningham, 2017). Consider, for instance, the backlash from the so-called bathroom bill North Carolina passed in 2016 and other states considered in 2017.
The bill required transgender people to use public restrooms consistent with their sex assigned at birth, rather than that consistent with their gender identity and expression. Many saw the North Carolina bill and versions of it in other states as discriminatory, and businesses took note. Numerous business canceled events, moved their operations, or decided to forego potential opportunities in North Carolina, resulting in over $600 million in economic losses.
When Texas legislatures were considering a similar bill, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) threatened to move the men’s basketball championships from the host site (San Antonio). Ultimately, passage of the bill failed, and the event remained, as did the projected $240 million in economic impact.
There is an old adage, “you are known by the company you keep,” and this thinking applies to diversity, inclusion, social responsibility, and business decisions. Consumers make cognitive linkages between organizations and the events and activities with which they are associated.
The same applies to the sport context. It is this linkage that explains why some companies will seek endorsement deals from celebrities or popular athletes: they hope that the positive feelings fans have for that person will transfer to the company.
As another example, consumers reward companies they believe act in a socially responsible manner by buying their goods and services. But, the opposite also occurs. In this case, the negative attitudes people feel toward laws they believe are discriminatory (e.g., bathroom bills) might carry over to the affiliated companies or events.
It is this association that explains why “sport organizations like the NCAA or the National Basketball Association (NBA), entertainers such as Bruce Springsteen and businesses like Dow Chemical all sought to distance themselves from North Carolina” (Cunningham, 2017) after it passed the bathroom bill.
Finally, extending creative capital theory to the sport organization context suggests that LGBT diverse and inclusive workplaces are likely to attract talented, creative people, which should spur innovation and success.
Our research and that of other scholars, supports this position. Among athletic departments in the US, LGBT employee diversity, when coupled with an inclusive setting, is positively associated with objective measures of performance (Cunningham, 2011b; Cunningham & Nite, 2018). Further, because they don’t have to worry about hiding their sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBT individuals working in inclusive settings can devote more time and energy to their work (Cunningham, 2015a).
The collective evidence is clear: (a) LGBT diversity and inclusiveness signals a welcoming and diverse environment across multiple domains of difference; (b) inclusiveness is attractive to potential consumers, sponsors, and job applicants; and (c) as a result, inclusive organizations are marked by greater creativity, employee productivity, and sport-specific measures of performance. In short, inclusiveness pays.
Steps for Creating and Sustaining LGBT Diversity and Inclusion
In our previous work on LGBT inclusiveness, we have found it instructive to consider factors operating at the societal, organizational, group, and individual levels—or what we refer to as multilevel analyses (Cunningham, 2012a, 2019a, b; Hussain & Cunningham, 2019). Both theoretical and practical reasons inform our position.
Consider, for example, that many diversity-related theories highlight the importance of multilevel analysis: managerial theories have an emphasis on structures, processes, and strategies employed by organizational decision-makers; sociological theories give credence to the systems and institutions that perpetuate inequality; and social psychological theories signal the importance of the individual relative to others in a social setting (Cunningham, 2019a).
Given that good theory should inform practice (Cunningham, Fink, & Doherty, 2016), sport managers can draw from these perspectives to guide their decision making.
Sport organizations comprise of individuals and teams that interact with others within and outside the sport organization. For example, equal employment laws or competitors’ recruiting strategies, both of which are external to the organization, might influence hiring decisions.
Given these connections, in the final section, we provide concrete ways in which sport managers can create and sustain diverse and inclusive teams, work groups, and organizations. To do so, we draw from our previous scholarship in the area, including experimental work, large-scale surveys, and in-depth case studies.
Several personal factors can influence inclusiveness and employees’ willingness to engage in activities aimed at promotion an inclusive workplace, including psychological characteristics such as open-mindedness, extroversion, prejudice, and attitudes toward social justice, among others. To illustrate, we conducted a series of investigations examining factors that influenced employees’ strong support for diversity, or what we called championing (Cunningham & Sartore, 2010).
Champions are key to ensuring that new initiatives, such as creating an LGBT-inclusive workplace, become solidified and adopted in the workplace (Cunningham, 2006, 2009b). We found that people who had low prejudicial attitudes toward racial minorities and LGBT individuals, as well as those who were high in extroversion, were more likely than their peers to champion diversity in their work environments.
In another study, we conducted in-depth interviews with LGBT individuals working in sport organizations (Melton & Cunningham, 2014). We asked them about how and when they felt supported. They reported that their workplace peers who were open-minded were most likely to serve as allies in the workplace.
Sport managers can also create an inclusive workplace by helping facilitate intergroup contact. For decades, researchers have shown that biases are reduced when people interact with people who are different (Allport, 1954). This is particularly the case when the organization supports and encourages the intergroup contact, when the individuals work cooperatively with one another, and when they have equal status.
Intergroup contact can help people learn about others, thereby reducing their anxiety and, ultimately, their prejudices (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008). The findings are consistent across racial groups (Cunningham & Melton, 2012), and contact can be especially helpful in reducing bias among people who hold fundamentalist values (Cunningham & Melton, 2013).
We conducted an in-depth case study of inclusive sport organizations and found that intergroup contact was among the key factors in facilitating inclusive spaces (Cunningham, 2015a, b). As just a couple of examples, some managers encourage contact through committee assignments, making sure people from different backgrounds all work with one another. Other sport managers create informal spaces, such as lunches or receptions, for people to engage with one another on an interpersonal level.
Interestingly, the benefits of contact can occur even through indirect contact. When people’s friends or even those who they hold in high regard have close ties with people who are different, these connections can reduce bias. This is a process called extended contact (Dovidio, Eller, & Hewstone, 2011).
To illustrate, a group of researchers examined whether reading Harry Potter books, and particularly the passages about prejudice and acceptance, could help reduce bias (Vezzali, Stathi, Giovannini, Capozza, & Trifiletti, 2015). Across several studies and among participants of various ages, the researchers found that reading the books was linked with a reduction in prejudice, especially among people who identified closely with the main character, Harry. These findings suggest that others’ inclusive attitudes have the potential to affect one’s own attitudes. Sport managers might draw from books or movies focusing on activism and fighting for inclusion (e.g., Battle of the Sexes) to make similar connections.
Engaging in difficult dialogues represents another individual factor that can enhance workplace inclusiveness. These represent discussions that are frequently avoided in the workplace because they can be challenging; however, when people engage in difficult dialogues with a learning mindset—that is, wanting to know about and understand the other person—they can elicit meaningful growth. In our previous in-depth case studies of LGBT-inclusive workplaces, the leaders pointed to the importance of such conversations (Cunningham, 2015a). One leader commented:
Conflict management experts also point to the benefits of engaging in difficult dialogues, noting that such discussions can facilitate trust and learning. People also learn to suspend their judgment, actively listen to others, and gain from others’ perspectives (Cunningham, 2019a). Sport managers would likely benefit from having their office read a book like Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 1999) and discussing how they can engage in challenging but necessary dialogues.
Organizational factors also influence the diversity and inclusiveness of a sport organization. Leader decisions and behaviors represent one such factor. Leaders set the tone for the organization, demonstrating to followers what are acceptable behaviors.
Leaders also signal to key constituents, both inside and external to the organization, what the organization values through their communications and decisions. As an example, in the previously-mentioned case study, coaches and administrators spoke about the important role of their leaders in setting the inclusive culture of the workplace (Cunningham, 2015a). The leaders advocated for LGBT diversity and inclusion within the workplace, in addition to speaking at national conferences and delivering invited talks. They were front and center in the quest for acceptance and inclusion.
Importantly, everyone in the organization can advocate for inclusion and diversity, thereby highlighting the important role of allies, or “individuals who offer support for diversity initiatives, social justice causes, and people from underrepresented groups” (Cunningham, 2019a, p. 342).
Players, coaches, administrators, parents, and support staff, among others, can all engage in ally behaviors. As one illustrative example, we conducted a case study of two academic departments (Sartore & Cunningham, 2010). Lesbians who we interviewed told us about the critical role that other faculty members in the departments played in advocating for fairness and justice.
One of the allies held considerable power in the unit: she was married, heterosexual, a full professor, enjoyed considerable professional success, and was well-regarded among her peers—all attributes that afford privilege and power in a university setting. She used her status in ways that other, less powerful people could not. When she spoke up in faculty meetings, penned letters, or engaged in one-on-one conversations to help promote LGBT inclusiveness, people listened. These dynamics are not just limited to academic departments. A participant in another study commented:
A male coach, especially one who is married with three kids, can publicly, support gay and lesbian issues. People will listen; they might even applaud him for his courage to speak out on a controversial topic. Can a female coach do that? Hell no. She’s immediately called a lesbian and all coaches in her conference are making sure recruits, and their parents, know she’s lesbian and supports lesbianism on the team” (Melton & Cunningham, 2014, p. 202, emphasis original)
Educating and programming are also key in creating an inclusive environment. Interestingly, even though diversity training and other educational activities are commonplace in many corporate settings, they occur less frequently in sport organizations (Cunningham, 2012b).
Of course, simply offering training does not mean people will apply it in their work. Instead, our research shows that employees are most likely to transfer the knowledge gained into their everyday work practice when (a) there is a clear link between the educational activities and broader organizational mission and goals; and (b) the training is positioned as a way to improve performance, as opposed to simply fulfilling compliance obligations (Cunningham, 2012b).
Training and education can take several forms (Cunningham, 2015a). Some sport organizations use book clubs as a way of facilitating conversations and understanding. In other cases, some teams have viewed documentaries, such as the powerful documentary, Training Rules, that outlined deep-seated prejudice against lesbians in athletics.
Still others will bring in outside speakers to hold workshops. Before formulating any activity, it is important to clearly understand the needs in the workplace—knowing where the employees and athletes excel and where there are gaps. The training and education should help to address shortcomings or to support existing competencies. Furthermore, the trainers should clearly articulate why the training is taking place, how the learning will help strengthen the workplace, and how the activities are related to the broader aims of diversity and inclusion.
Culture represents a final organizational factor that can influence LGBT diversity and inclusion. According to Schein (1990), culture represents the shared values, assumptions, norms, and beliefs within an organization. Culture is shared among organizational members, taught to newcomers, and reinforced over time.
Our work with athletes illustrates the importance of inclusive cultures where people feel they can be themselves (Cunningham, Pickett, Melton, Lee, & Miner, 2014). We collected data from NCAA women’s basketball players, asking them about their sexual orientation, the degree to which their sexual identity was important to them, and how psychologically safe they felt on their teams. Kahn (1990) described psychological safety as “feeling able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career” (p. 708), and it is reflective of an inclusive, welcoming space.
For heterosexuals, the psychological safety was immaterial to the centrality of their sexual identity in their lives. For lesbians, though, psychological safety mattered a great deal: when safety was high, lesbians strongly identified with their sexual identity, but when safety was low, their sexual identity was depressed. These findings are consistent with our research among sport organization employees (Cunningham, 2015a).
In inclusive workplaces, LGBT employees felt they could be more authentic, bringing their “whole selves” to the workplace. Coyle (2018) offers a number of practical steps to creating a strong culture like that we describe, including: ensuring people feel safe to work and engage in creative activities; leaders showing vulnerability and trust of others; and reinforcing (through signs, pictures, and other artifacts) the core value and beliefs throughout the workplace.
Finally, societal factors can influence LGBT diversity and inclusion. Across many European countries, it is illegal to discriminate in the workplace (ILGA Europe, 2017), but these same restrictions are not present in the US. In fact, in most states (29 of 50), it is permissible for sport managers to base their hiring, promotion, professional development, or termination decisions on the individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity (Non-discriminatory Laws, 2017).
As a result, LGBT individuals experience prejudice and discrimination at work and face negative health effects. But, sport managers are not simply passive recipients of their environment; instead, they can create inclusive workplaces even in states or cities where LGBT employment protections are lacking. In fact, employees are most likely to believe managers have a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion in such situations (Pugh, Dietz, Brief, & Wiley, 2008).
Similarly, sport managers should scan the external environment to ensure they are ahead of their competitors. Ladson-Billings (2004) has shown that sport leaders will sometimes only implement diversity initiatives in the face of performance declines and as a way of catching up with their competitors. The problem with such a reactive approach, of course, is that other teams or organizations have already passed these leaders by.
Indeed, in our own work, we have seen that sport organizations will sometimes seek to create inclusive workplaces when they lose fans, recruits, and games to more inclusive competitors (Cunningham, 2009b). Instead of being reactive, a different approach is to adopt a proactive, inclusive mindset. In such cases, the sport organization is ahead of industry trends and makes inclusiveness a key element of their success. Our case studies of inclusive athletic departments (Cunningham & Singer, 2009), our empirical work in the area (Cunningham, 2009a, 2011b), and the work of other scholars (e.g., Fink, Pastore, & Riemer, 2003) all support this position.
Our work has consistently shown the business case for LGBT diversity and inclusion. Given the nature of sport and entertainment management, focusing on outcomes like performance, success, creativity, and factors that enable places to be effective is intuitive. It makes sense to examine the management, marketing, and governance of sport.
While, we acknowledge that performance-related metrics are frequently the primary emphasis for sport managers, we also suggest that there is a broader, more fundamental rationale to focus on LGBT diversity and inclusion: we are dealing with people.
Including all people, irrespective of how similar or different they are from us, is just the right thing to do, we submit. This is not necessarily a utopian or Pollyanna-type statement. Instead, researchers have long shown that people who experience chronic stressors through prejudice and discrimination have immediate and lasting health impairments, including death (Cunningham, 2017).
This is true for those facing such bias and even for those who express it. Unless changes are made, sport will remain a contributing factor to these health disparities—just one of the many spaces contributing to the chronic bias-related stress LGBT individuals experience. Thus, a focus on people first means prioritizing their well-being, their life.
Unless sport managers actively seek to make sport more inclusive and end the bias that so commonly pervades these spaces, they are complicit in perpetuating that bias (see also Kendi, 2019). We are in the people business, and this is the real reason to support diversity and inclusion. The performance gains—those are just the cherry on top of the proverbial performance cake.
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