Higher education has an image of being among the more tolerant and progressive parts of American society with regard to gender and sexual orientation. Colleges pledge to combat sexism and homophobia -- and take pride in a variety of polices and programs that reflect this commitment.
Big-time athletics may be a little different. Even on campuses with large gay student groups, for example, openly gay male athletes are a rarity -- and pretty much unheard of in football and basketball. Fans at universities that take pride in their inclusive campus environments think little of taunting Duke University basketball players with anti-gay slurs.  At the University of Virginia, students debate why many of them feel obliged to assert their heterosexuality with a cheer at a key point when the song that follows Cavalier touchdowns makes a reference to “gay”  (not in the sexual orientation way).
Research presented Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association suggests a possible reason: College students who are serious about their identification with their institution’s football and men’s basketball teams are more likely than other students to have homophobic and sexist attitudes.
The research -- by Matthew A. Holsapple of the University of Michigan and Deborah J. Taub of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro -- was based on survey responses of 459 undergraduates at a university in the football bowl subdivision of Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The participants were given three surveys. One measured their degrees of identification with and support for the football and basketball teams. The other two were survey instruments – previously developed by others and tested for validity -- of “modern” sexist and homophobic beliefs. The idea behind such “modern” bigotry surveys (similar tools exist for measuring attitudes about race) is that most people today will not admit to explicitly bigoted attitudes of hating members of certain groups, but will respond to more subtle questions about attitudes and stereotypes.
In the case of this study, the researchers found a clear, positive association between degree of sports fandom of the college students for their teams, and homophobic and sexist attitudes. To the researchers’ surprise, they found that the dynamic applied to male and female students alike.
In their paper, the researchers argue that attitudes among college students who are sports fans are important and shouldn’t be written off as inconsequential.
“Cheering for football and basketball teams is a major part of many students’ college experiences. ... Colleges and universities often use intercollegiate athletics as a front door to their institution for prospective students, donors, alumni, and the general public,” the authors write.
In this study, the researchers said that there were some factors that may have understated the extent of fans’ homophobia. The institutional review board that reviewed the survey required that the cover note sent to participants indicate that the study dealt in part with homophobia, and many previous studies have found that those with the most homophobic attitudes are less likely to participate in such surveys. Other unique factors about this institution may also have affected the outcome, although the researchers are not sure how. For example, the survey was conducted in a period of time during which the major men’s teams were not experiencing great success, but some women’s teams were.
With those caveats, the researchers believe that the study suggests possible strategies for those in student affairs who work to promote tolerance on their campuses. On one hand, the study points to a possible need to focus on the population of student fans as a cohort that may not have embraced the ideas of equity that departments of student affairs generally encourage. On the other hand, because of the strong identification of these students with athletics teams, sports traditions may provide an avenue to education, they suggest.
“Programming involving athletes speaking against homophobia and sexism might be appropriate, as would emphasizing gay and female sports fans. In addition, student activities that often surround major intercollegiate athletics, such as Homecoming parades or pep rallies, could include subtle messages of inclusion and equality,” the researchers write.