Athletes who have played in diversity-themed games that celebrate pride and inclusion use homophobic language less often than players who have not, according to new research from Australia's Monash University and Ryerson University in Toronto.
Pride Games or Pride Nights are now held annually by most teams in North America's top leagues as well as other clubs and leagues around the world.
The study collected data from players on the eight teams in the semi-pro Australian Ice Hockey League near the end of the 2018 season.
Researchers found 38 per cent of players on teams that held pride games self-reported using a homophobic slur at least once over a two-week period, compared to 61 per cent of players whose teams did not play pride games.
"Our findings are just a start," said lead author Erik Denison with Monash's School of Social Sciences. "Homophobic and sexist language is still really bad in sport even on teams that hold pride games. But what we've shown is you can cut this language in half and with a bit of effort we can cut it even further.
"We can cut it another half and another half, and that will make sport more welcoming and fun for everyone."
The research, supported by the Australian government, Amnesty International and the You Can Play project, sought to investigate if diversity-themed games help reduce discriminatory behaviour in sport.
Researchers compared homophobic language use by players on the two AIHL teams that had held pride games with those of players on the six teams that had not. The AIHL held its first pride game in 2017.
Players on teams that played pride games were also less likely (54 per cent versus 69 per cent) to report hearing teammates use homophobic language over the two-week period, the study found.
Despite the presence of homophobic language and no players in the league identifying as gay or bisexual, 92 per cent of players believed a gay player would feel "very welcome" on a team, researchers said.
"We are surprised elite adult hockey players don't understand using this language would make a gay player feel unwelcome," Denison said. "This is the first study to show holding a diversity-themed game can help address discriminatory language. We believe combining pride games with better communication about why language is harmful to LGBT people is key to stopping this behaviour."
Over 25 per cent of AIHL players are from Canada or the United States, researchers said.
Brock Weston, a native of Maidstone, Sask., played junior hockey in Canada before a four-year run at Marian University in Wisconsin. Fed up after hearing slurs and derogatory comments about gay people over the years on the ice, he came out to his NCAA Division III teammates in an open letter and said he was accepted as if nothing changed.
He said hockey has a long way to go but he's pleased some progress is being made in changing the culture.
"I'm really happy about the results of that study," Weston said. "I think it's amazing to see the change with the exposure and the education and everything. I think it's going to really help people understand not only themselves a little better, but the experience of other people and how they're interactions with them can impact them."
The study, published in the academic textbook "Sport Media Vectors: Digitization, Expanding Audiences, and the Globalization of Live Sport,” was edited by Ryerson assistant professor Laurel Walzak and associate professor Joe Recupero.
"This study helps to address the need for evidence-based solutions that sports organizations can use to stop exclusionary behaviours," said Walzak. "There is a clear need to do more to ensure LGBT people, women, and people with diverse ethnicities feel welcome and safe to play sport."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 27, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press