In the wake of Houston Dynamo midfielder Colin Clark's suspension from Major League Soccer for using a homophobic slur on the field, it is clear that professional sports teams are beginning to take lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality and allyship seriously. Homophobia that would have passed as an unfortunate part of athletic culture a few years ago is now being treated with the weight and severity it warrants. Though Clark's suspension is meaningful, such penalties can only advance our athletic culture so far.
As an athlete and coach, I have seen, with rare exception, that maximizing positive outcomes means balancing punishment with empowerment, and systems to discourage with systems to encourage. While suspensions and fines help to define what type of conduct is expected of professional athletes, they do little to change the overarching narrative that sport snubs LGBT coaches, athletes, and fans. Furthermore, because these penalties occur as isolated incidences without a structure or system for understanding them in relation to one another, their effect on LGBT empowerment is limited. In turn, professional sports need a multidimensional model for assessing, amplifying, and institutionalizing LGBT allyship in a way that celebrates progress as much as it discourages prejudice.
The Human Rights Campaign figured this out 10 years ago in the business world, when they implemented the Corporate Equality Index (CEI). What began with only 13 participating companies has launched into an equality arms race, with 10 of the top 20 Fortune-500 companies now receiving perfect marks. Today, high-scoring companies even brand themselves by their CEI scores, showcasing the HRC logo on website homepages. These companies care how their clients, customers, and employees perceive them on LGBT inclusivity and equality and are willing to make policy and procedural improvements based on those perceptions.
Though professional sports are moving in a positive direction, they need the transparency and metrics of an equality index to institutionalize a proactive rather than reactive culture of allyship. Using in-depth analyses and ratings of professional league and team policies and practices pertinent to LGBT athletes and fans, an Athletic Equality Index (AEI) would assess criteria like the inclusivity of employment benefits, and the adequacy of fan codes of conduct on and franchise responses to LGBT issues. Each resulting report would expose teams who fall short, celebrate teams who excel, and recommend areas of improvement, all together guiding teams toward major policy advances and organizational commitments to equality.
The AEI would also carry several important benefits for sports franchises. For example, by incentivizing inclusive policies that respect LGBT players and their families, the index would facilitate LGBT participation in sports. These LGBT-friendly teams will tap new pools of talent and improve results. In that vein, a team's culture garners loyalty among fans and can be as critical to its legacy and popularity as its winnings. An AEI would add a new dimension to a team's public image by showing the LGBT community and its allies that they are valued and welcomed. As a result, professional franchises could generate new revenue among progressive fans.
According to Witeck-Combs market research, LGBT consumers have a cumulative spending power of $743 billion. With few teams currently standing out as leaders in this space, an equality index would help franchises with high AEI rankings benefit from that spending power. For example, each year the Human Rights Campaign puts out a "Buying for Workplace Equality Guide." This resource helps people who care about equality direct their spending toward progressive businesses. A "Cheering for Athletic Equality Guide," made possible with an AEI, would have a similar effect.
Inclusive policies and procedures make athletic, economic, and moral sense for professional teams. But any progress made will be isolated and inconsistent without an index. Examples of allyship are less easily communicated to the public, less easily celebrated by our community, and less easily understood by the teams themselves without a system for assessing, interpreting and conveying them. An Athletic Equality Index is a necessary mechanism through which professional sports can harness the kind of progress achieved in workplaces over the last decade.