The sports world has not always been considered the most inviting place for those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Yet University of Arizona researcher, Russell Toomey, says college athletes can make powerful allies for the LGBT community, given their visibility and status on campus.

Toomey, a UA assistant professor of family and consumer sciences, has developed a scale to measure the ally behaviours of college athletes in an effort to better understand how often they engage in ally behaviours and what those behaviours look like.

He examines the effectiveness of his Engagement in LGBTQ Ally Actions in Sports scale in a new study published in the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport.

Toomey hopes college athletic departments nationwide might use the scale to help start a conversation about LGBT ally behaviours among college athletes.

“We believe that this could be a good scale to understand and assess where athletic departments are in terms of players’ engagement in anti-bias behaviours,” said Toomey, who developed the scale with collaborators Christi McGeorge and Thomas Carlson at North Dakota State University.

“It also will allow us to understand from more than just the LGBT players’ perspective what’s going on in the sports environment,” said Toomey, who teaches in the UA’s John & Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Among the researchers’ findings: Female athletes were more likely than males to identify as LGBT allies. While none of the women surveyed said they do not consider themselves allies, 11 men stated in their responses to the open-ended questions that they are not allies. Altogether, 159 athletes were surveyed; 49.7 percent of them were female and 95 percent identified as heterosexual.

The reason for the gender difference could be because of the way sports have been hyper-masculinised, Toomey said.

“Masculinity is heightened in sports, and it may be more important to men to engage in behaviours that show off their masculinity,” Toomey said. “There may be a fear that if a male athlete stands up or speaks out against LGBT-related bias, they might be perceived as being gay, and they don’t want their teammates to perceive them that way.”

He continued: “Athletes have a lot of power and prestige on campus and can really motivate change.

“We know from other intervention studies that people with more prestige are the most effective people to target with interventions, because if they change their behaviours, people around them are more likely to change their behaviours.”

Creating an environment in which LGBT student-athletes feel safe also could make a difference in the way athletes perform.

“We know that team cohesion and belonging is really important for sports performance, so if we can cultivate environments where all players feel safe and welcome and like they’re part of a team, then they’re likely to perform better,” Toomey said.

What’s more, when LGBT student-athletes feel safe, other students on campus will likely benefit as well.

“We know that when a specific population of students feels safe then usually all students feel safer,” Toomey said.

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