The use of homophobic slurs in sports: It’s for the athletes’ own good, right?

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Jennifer Fraser

“…male athletes in particular are held up as and expected to be paragons of a certain kind of masculinity, seen as the rejection of all that is coded ‘feminine.’ Exhortations that male athletes ‘be a man’ or ‘not act like little girls’ are even more pervasive in sports than they are in general culture. So it’s little surprise that a coach would use insults that imply his players are less than men to shame, humiliate and control them.” —T. F. Charlton

Homophobic slurs are an ideal way to stop young athletes from reporting abuse: if the coach regularly calls boys “pussies” or tells them to “grow some balls” or screams at them that they are “soft,” these boys are very unlikely to report because they worry that if they can’t hack such tough, masculine coaching, they might just be the feminized, degraded players the coach accuses them of being. Chances are good if you ask this kind of coach why he speaks to the boys this way, he will tell you that it’s to ‘toughen them up’. He will tell you that humiliating, taunting, and insulting, namely bullying, are effective tools to build athletic greatness. That’s how he was coached.

Unfortunately, there are many studies that reveal this kind of coaching harms athletes and fails to make winning teams. According to University of Toronto experts in the use of emotional abuse in sports: “One of the barriers to the implementation of an athlete-centered approach is the assumption, held by many sport practitioners, that holistic development comes at a cost to athletic performance.” However, there is “no empirical evidence” to back this belief up.[1] One of the greatest misconceptions in the sporting world is the belief that being hard on athletes makes strong teams.

As long ago as 1983, psychiatrist Dr. Alice Miller exposed a poisonous pedagogical approach as having devastating effects on children. Her study, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Childhood and the Roots of Violence has been so influential that a new edition was released in 2002. Essentially, Miller argues that care-givers who use abusive approaches, whether physical or emotional, harm children in significant ways even though they claim to have “the child’s best interests” in mind.[2]

Poisonous pedagogy underpins the argument that coaches need to yell, swear, humiliate and demean athletes in order to get the best out of them and for their team to be successful.

I resigned from a school where homophobic culture was widespread and tolerated in the basketball program. To give some examples of the culture: one day, while the Senior Boys Basketball team were competing in the Provincial Championships, one of the coaches wrote an email to all faculty at the school using a homophobic slur: “Boys lose by 11 with a soft second half performance.” This is a team where the term “soft” is hurled at the boys on a regular basis at practices. The messaging is that the abuse is deserved because the boys are failing to achieve masculine hardness (with all of its sexual overtones likely not lost on adolescent boys or in sports culture in general). One of the coaches would yell at students that they were “soft as butter”; according to Google’s online urban dictionary, “soft as butter” is an “expression to describe an absolute pussy who makes the most cowardly person look like a hero.”[3] Fourteen students came forward to report that taunting and insulting language was eroding their confidence and killing their love of the game. They were clear that homophobic slurs were harmful to them.

The use of misogynistic or homophobic terms to humiliate teenage boys is both widely discussed and well documented in sports journalism and abuse literature. However, as the coaches themselves said in their responses to the student allegations of bullying, in a School culture where using this language is seen as “normal” it was difficult to know when they’d crossed the line. And far more insidious and poisonous are the students’ beliefs, when exposed to repeated humiliation, as they recorded in their testimonies, that perhaps they deserve it because they are “soft.” And to bring it full circle, the worry that they are in fact soft stops them from asking for help or protection.

When Rutgers’ basketball coach Mike Rice was exposed as using homophobic slurs, there was significant outcry and he was fired. In Yahoo Sports in April 2013, sports reporter, Erik Adelson says that when the video of Mike Rice abusing players was aired: “social media exploded with horror and one resounding question: Why didn’t anyone fight back?” He looks beyond Rutgers University to multiple athletics programs for his answer and concludes that the question of why athletes tolerate abuse has “a one-word answer: fear.”[4] Athletes, boys in particular, are afraid that if they speak up, they will be accused of being “soft”.

In an article that responded to the Mike Rice scandal, T. F. Charlton examines the phenomenon of athletes not reporting on abusive coaches:

We should hardly be surprised, then, that players don’t speak up about abuse — and even, as in Rice’s case and many others, actually defend abusive behavior. Male and female players alike model the message they receive: that coaches who violate their emotional and physical boundaries do so for players’ good, and players who don’t handle this stoically aren’t up to snuff.[5]

Only one player on the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights risked speaking up against Coach Mike Rice before the video was played on ESPN. Homophobic coaching must be stopped. As T. F. Charlton argues:

“Instead of teaching young athletes to accept and shoulder abusive coaching as being ‘for their good,’ let’s teach them — and remind ourselves — that they have a right to not have their emotional and physical boundaries violated. Let’s provide an institutional structure that is proactive about preventing and addressing abuse and protects athletes and staff who speak out about it.”[6]

As a society, we will never eradicate bullying until we create a culture of support and remedy for those who find themselves in a cycle over which they have little or no control. Just like children who bully are not tolerated, coaches who bully need to be removed instantly from their positions until they are able to stop, get a clean bill of health from a psychologist, and hopefully return to their job. We would never let a teacher with a highly contagious disease near students. Likewise, we should never let a coach or teacher who suffers from a bullying or other psychological disorder to interact with students as their tendencies may well be passed on.

As one student recounted in his testimony at my former school: “I worry that I might become like [two of the coaches]. I’m scared I will snap and coach like them. It’s a really big worry for me. I have the fear that being abused, I’ll abuse others.” Another student reports that when coaching his little brother’s team, he found himself resorting to the same abusive practices to which he had been subjected. When his behaviour was pointed out to him by the adult with whom he was coaching, he felt terrible. Nevertheless, it was still a struggle for this bullied player to stop emulating the abusive coaching style he had learned as a younger player. He wanted to be seen as tough, hard, and successful after having that beaten into his mind over and over again at practices and games.

This honest admission by teenagers about how they have been negatively impacted is extremely concerning especially in terms of the students who normalize bullying behaviour, do not speak up against it or turn a blind eye when they witness it happen. Perhaps this is why there is a bullying epidemic not only in schools, but also in the workplace. For further discussion of emotional abuse in athletics, see Fraser’s forthcoming book, Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom.


[1] Ashley E. Stirling and Gretchen A. Kerr, “Abused Athletes’ Perceptions of the Coach-Athlete Relationship”, Sport in Society Vol.12.2, March 2009: 227-239.

[2] Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Childhood and the Roots of Violence, trans. Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux: 2002.


[4] Erik Adelson, “Why do College Athletes Tolerate Abuse?” Yahoo Sports, April 2013:–why-don-t-college-athletes-call-out-abusive-coaches–222535612.html

[5] T. F. Charlton: “Why do athletes tolerate abusive coaches? In locker rooms, insubordination is a worse crime than abuse of authority. Unless that changes, nothing else will.”

[6] T. F. Charlton: “Why do athletes tolerate abusive coaches? In locker rooms, insubordination is a worse crime than abuse of authority. Unless that changes, nothing else will.”


Jennifer Fraser has a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto and is a published writer. She is presently teaching creative writing and International Bacclaureate literature classes at an independent school in British Columbia.

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