LGBT Inclusive Athletic Departments as Social Change Agents

What do you do when an organization engages in actions you find are unacceptable? Some will complain to the company, others voice their dissatisfaction through social media, while others will boycott the organization. Still others will do nothing at all.

In my own life, I will frequently base my purchase decisions on how inclusive an organization's policies are, as rated by the HR's Corporate Equality Index. For instance, I do not purchase gas from a certain large provider, even though there are three stations very close to my house, because that organization ranks very low on the CEI. Similarly, though I am a vegetarian, I used to take my daughters to a certain chicken restaurant chain for Saturday breakfast, but we stopped when the founder made negative and hurtful comments about LGBT equality. The list goes on... 

These sorts of behaviors have also caught the eyes of academics, who seek to understand how individuals or organizations engage in social change related activities. This collective body of research is interesting, especially for someone like me who seeks to understand similar activities within the sport field. Interestingly, most of this research focuses on organizations outside a particular setting in which the activities take place. For example, how does Green Peace (an outside organization) engage in social advocacy to promote more sustainable business practices among oil and gas corporations (organizations within a particular field)? 

As a twist on this perspective, I recently wrote an article arguing that organizations within a given setting could also serve as change agents.* In this case, I focused on NCAA athletic departments, and how some departments--ones that promoted inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons--might serve as change agents within the field of athletics. 

The figure below offers an overview of what I proposed. I suggest that negative stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination toward LGBT individuals has become the norm in sport and in many respects, taken for granted. When this happens, such perspectives are said to be institutionalized. However, I also argued that LGBT inclusive athletic departments help break down these norms and understandings. They do so primarily by promoting the benefits of LGBT inclusion to others. Leaders in these athletic departments speak at conferences and other universities; they take part in campaigns, like You Can Play, to promote diversity and inclusion; and they actively question the utility of having departments that exclude others. 

These activities serve to break down the taken for granted assumptions and beliefs about exclusion; this is what we call the deinstitutionalization of certain practices. The LGBT inclusive departments must then show that inclusion is beneficial. And, there is plenty of evidence to do so. For example, there is considerable evidence of how LGBT inclusive departments far outperform their peers in objective measures of performance. Athletic directors we have interviewed also talk about how inclusion allows people to not hide their identities at work, and when this happens, employees can be fully engaged. 

The departments also discuss ways to make their departments inclusive. This is done by focusing on all elements of the department, from the policies and strategic plan, to the language they use, to the way they engage in conflicts and disagreements, and everything in between. In short, inclusive principles are embedded throughout the workplace. 

This process can help other departments see the benefits of diversity and inclusion. And, ultimately, as more and more departments come on board, it creates a new norm, or in academic terms, a new institutional form. We have seen this with other forms of diversity, such as inclusion of racial minorities and women. And, with more athletic departments and other sport organizations embracing inclusion, it is only a matter of time until LGBT inclusion becomes engrained in college athletics. 


* Cunningham, G. B. (2015). LGBT inclusive athletic departments as actors of social change. Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, 8, 43-56.