While Jason Collins, the first male professional athlete currently playing on a U.S. sports team to announce he is gay, may have received overwhelming public support, Collins’s personal journey was no doubt a difficult one. Similarly, NCAA basketball player Brittney Griner recently acknowledged she is gay and discussed her experiences being bullied as a child. Like Collins and Griner, athletes at all levels often face heightened pressures when it comes to disclosing their sexual orientation or voicing support for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender team members.
Collins’s public announcement and recent reports of potential NFL players being asked questions regarding their sexual orientation serve as a reminder that anti-discrimination laws apply to professional sports teams. While sexual orientation is not explicitly protected by federal law, 21 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment based on sexual orientation. Further, the EEOC has said that transgender discrimination is discrimination on the basis of “sex” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Macy v. Holder, Appeal No. 0120120821 (Apr. 20, 2012). Anti-discrimination laws prohibit not only overt discrimination but also inappropriate harassment, such as derogatory comments or jokes about one’s sexual orientation, name-calling or unwelcome physical contact.
As the EEOC’s Strategic Plan focuses on seeking protection for LGBT individuals under Title VII, now is the time for sports teams to consider best practices to both avoid legal disputes and foster a more positive experience for their athletes. A key component of this effort should be appropriate anti-bullying training for players and employees. Such programs should, at a minimum, foster an awareness regarding discrimination and harassment with respect to sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. It is also important to ensure that anti-discrimination policies are well-communicated to athletes, coaches and managers and that any complaints about sexual orientation or gender identity or expression discrimination or harassment are promptly and appropriately reviewed and investigated.
Anti-discrimination training should be implemented at all levels, including for high school and collegiate athletic programs seeking to provide LGBT student athletes with equal access to school sports.