Moving Beyond Rainbow Capitalism In Sports
Sports are uniquely positioned to create social change.
Dodger Stadium (Credit: Jim Epler)
Pride should be a time to celebrate and support the LGBTQ+ community, but two recent stories have highlighted how this support doesn't extend beyond the surface level. First, Target yielded to anti-LGBTQ+ calls for a national boycott, pulling Pride merchandise from shelves. In the sports world, the Dodgers revoked (then re-offered) an invitation to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an organization of drag performers with a long history of charitable works, to participate in the team’s Pride Night.
LGBTQ+ communities and allies have criticized these decisions and pointed out the limitations of “Rainbow Capitalism,” the practice of selling and marketing LGBTQ-themed products for profit without genuinely engaging or supporting LGBTQ+ people in a meaningful way.
Right now, sports organizations have an opportunity to step up to the plate. To practice real allyship during and after Pride, they should focus on creating inclusive policies for the LGBTQ+ people at the core of their organizations—athletes, coaches, and administrative role players—to participate safely, as their true selves. As it stands, many still aren’t able to do so.
There’s no hard data on the percentage of LGBTQ+ people in sports at large, particularly in men’s competition. However, a national study estimates that only 24% of LGBTQ+ youth participate in a sport ,as opposed to 68% of the general youth population. Beginning at an early age, stigma and discrimination generate fear and discourage people from coming to sports events and/or participating in them. Homophobic and transphobic “locker-room talk,” anti-LGBTQ+ harassment by fans, and fear of losing career opportunities are frequently cited challenges. Some athletes are explicitly told not to come out by coaches, parents, school staff, and agents. Others are bullied and harassed for being LGBTQ+, leading them to drop out of sports or preventing them from participating altogether.
LGBTQ+ inclusion is about creating safe and welcoming spaces for LGBTQ+ people. It’s about providing equal opportunities, resources, and conditions to people who may be otherwise excluded or marginalized based on their LGBTQ+ identities. This, in turn, enables people to show up and perform at their best.
Sports organizations at every level of competition can build inclusive spaces in a variety of ways, such as prohibiting the use of anti-LGBTQ+ language in their codes of conduct for employees (and fans) and adding nondiscrimination clauses to contracts or handbooks. They can implement policies that allow people to compete on teams that align with their gender identities—based on peer-reviewed, scientific findings about participation. They can partner with LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations for mandatory training and/or policymaking guidance.
Ashlyn Harris, Layshia Clarendon, Luke Prokop, Patricio Manuel (Credit: Jamie Smed, Lorie Shaull, Kaiser Matias, Aswadhin)
Sports have power. They bring together millions of people from all walks of life. The dynamics and systemic challenges that play out in sports are the same ones that surface in our everyday lives. That’s why sports are uniquely positioned to create social change from the inside out.
Sports can help us move beyond Rainbow Capitalism. When policies are in place to protect and support LGBTQ+ people, they have a reverberating and meaningful effect year-round. They establish new rules of engagement—a different way of participating and navigating the world. Setting a team precedent of inclusion can influence what goes on in the stands or in the homes of spectators.
At the end of the day, Pride Nights (and, sometimes, merchandising) do serve a purpose. They symbolize LGBTQ+ recognition, visibility, and acceptance in athletic spaces. Yet they can also be surface-level—like slapping a bandaid on a deep wound. Breaking down existing barriers to inclusion will lead to real systemic change and create opportunities for genuine engagement of sports communities nationwide.