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Discrimination in Sports: 5 Types, 25 Solutions

Discrimination in Sports: 5 Types, 25 Solutions

Discrimination in sports is never acceptable. By quickly and thoroughly investigating harassment and discrimination claims, sports organizations can make their workplaces more inclusive and diverse.

Despite the fact that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were celebrated as the first-ever gender-balanced Olympics in history, discrimination is sports isn’t simply a gender-based issue.

To date, much of the equity work in the sports world has focused on gender, which means there are still significant gaps with race, religion, and more.

For example, 50 per cent of LGBTQ Americans reported being abused or insulted while talking about, watching, or playing sports, highlighting that there is still much work to be done when it comes to inclusivity both on and off the field.

Though society is working toward becoming more inclusive of all races, genders, sexualities, religions, and abilities, discrimination in sports continues to be a blight on what should be a fun atmosphere. You should strive to thoroughly and quickly investigate all examples of discrimination in sports in order to promote inclusivity in your organization.

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Gender Discrimination in Sports

Gender discrimination in professional sports is a tale as old as time, with women fighting for sports equity in countless ways. When it comes to gender discrimination in sports examples, you likely think of Billie Jean King fighting to receive equal pay, or women ski jumpers demanding they be allowed to participate in the Olympics.

Women athletes continually still face harassment and gender discrimination in sports at all levels of play. According to a 2019 study conducted at Purdue University, the needle on media coverage of women’s sports has only moved a tiny fraction over the past 30 years. The study found that coverage of women athletes on televised news and highlights shows was a little over five per cent—only a 0.03 per cent increase since 1989.

Discrimination of gender in sports is prevalent as their games are scheduled for less desirable times and are barely discussed in the media. Women’s professional sports teams also earn much less than their male counterparts, as their wages are revenue-based.

However, hot on the heels of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the U.S. women’s soccer team launched a campaign to make their pay more equitable to their male counterparts. The team was successful in its endeavor, with the United States Soccer Federation, the United States Women’s National Team Players Association, and United States National Soccer Team Players Association agreeing to a deal for equal pay in May of 2022.

Female athletes also have to deal with how they are perceived by the public. Men who play professional sports are seen as heroes who live and breathe their game. However, women are often viewed as mothers or wives first and athletes second. Toxic gender stereotypes also lead female athletes to be objectified and sexualized, their looks garnering more press than their skills.

The 2016 USA Gymnastics scandal shined a spotlight on sexual harassment in sports after a number of former gymnasts alleged they were abused by coaches and doctors. In 2021, survivors were awarded a $380 million dollar settlement from USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Some additional strides have been made for women facing gender discrimination in sports in the past few years, with record viewing numbers for UK women’s sports in the first three months of 2022. Another barrier was broken in the arena of women’s sports in 2022, with Madison Square Garden playing host to a boxing match with two women for the first time ever.

While gender discrimination in sports most negatively affects women, gender stereotypes in sports also affect men. Male athletes who participate in "feminine" sports like figure skating and dance at a young age are often bullied. Men are often expected to be tall, big, and muscular to play any sport and may be discriminated against if they don't fit that body type.


  • Support women's and girls' sports as a fan or player. Attend women's sports games at all levels. Play a sport if you are an athlete. Support female athletes by watching their games on television or following them on social media.
  • Develop gender equity policies. Sports organizations need to work towards gender equity. Women doing equal work should have equal participation opportunities, financial aid or funding, wages and benefits as their male counterparts.
  • Avoid sexist language in communications. When writing about women's sports, avoid using innuendos or belittling athletes by alluding to their outfits or family roles outside the game. Use the same vivid language when describing both female and male athletes' performances.
  • Establish a whistle blower program. An easy-to-use, secure and anonymous whistleblowing platform can capture discrimination and harassment complaints in your sports organization. Coming forward to expose unfair practices can be daunting, so maintaining whistleblowers' security and privacy is key.
  • Hire more female sports executives. Encouraging women to pursue careers as players, coaches, trainers, executives and journalists can push sports towards gender equity.

Make sports culture safe for everyone.

Download this free sexual harassment policy template to help protect athletes and your organization.

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Racial Discrimination in Sports

In 2018, the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport recorded 52 instances of racial discrimination in sports in the United States alone. Internationally, they noted 137 racist acts. These numbers are up from 41 and 79 acts, respectively.

In 2020, Sports Illustrated sat down with a panel of black track athletes to discuss their experiences with racism. The participants shared first-hand accounts of racial discrimination in sport and life. A common thread was the pressure to perform better than their white counterparts.

Dalilah Mohammed, 400-meter hurdles world record holder, Olympic champion, and world championship gold medalist, shared a story from 2019, where she was told the night before her big race that she “had” to win. Said Dalilah, “He just wanted to make sure I knew that coming in second place would be completely unmarketable for me. Sometimes in America, that’s how it feels. You either have to be the best or we’re not spoken about. Being in second place is not a luxury that we have.”

Even LeBron James, one of today’s most successful basketball players, is not immune to racism. In June 2017, the athlete’s home was vandalized with racial slurs the night before that season’s NBA Finals. More recently on his HBO show The Shop, LeBron spoke about his experience with racist fans in Boston.

Athletes of color experience harassment and discrimination from teammates, opponents, team staff, and spectators. Hearing racist language, whether in the locker room or from the stands, is unfortunately not uncommon. At a college volleyball match between Duke and Brigham Young Universities in August 2022, racial slurs were hurled at a black female player, prompting one fan to be banned and an investigation to be launched.

Racial discrimination in sports can also be less obvious. For instance, some sports, such as golf and tennis, may not welcome minority athletes as much as others. Because these sports are often played at paid clubs, socio-economic barriers may keep minority athletes away, as people of color are overrepresented among America’s poor.

Sports organizations should have a zero-tolerance policy for racial discrimination and harassment. Supporting minority athletes by developing a good reporting tool and taking every case seriously will make athletes of all races feel safer and more welcome.


  • Write a zero-tolerance racism policy. This should apply to players, coaches, staff, and fans. Make it clear that racial discrimination in any form is not welcome in your organization.
  • Support athletes who speak up. Encourage players to report racial discrimination when they experience or witness it. Do not subscribe to the idea that athletes should "shut up and stick to sports" when they speak out publicly against racism.
  • Focus on inclusion. Teams should strive to include all players equally when planning team- and skill-building activities.
  • Don't make assumptions about athletes based on race. Just because a player has a certain skin color doesn't make them better- or less-suited to a specific sport.
  • Establish a safe sporting space for new immigrants. Immigrants come from a variety of national, racial, and linguistic backgrounds. Make your organization welcoming and accessible to them.

Religious Discrimination in Sports

Religious discrimination in sports can take many forms. Opponents and teammates may harass athletes if they are even chosen for the team at all. Less direct forms of discrimination, such as not accommodating each player's religious needs, can be just as harmful.

The traditional ways of doing things in the world of sports may not fit with some athletes' religions. For instance, Jewish athletes can't play a game on a Saturday and Muslim athletes may be prohibited from mixing with the opposite gender, including staff or spectators.

Sports uniforms often pose problems for religious athletes. Players may feel uncomfortable wearing uniforms with sponsor logos that don't mesh with their beliefs (e.g. tobacco, alcohol, gambling). Uniforms may also be too revealing. Sports dress regulations should allow athletes to wear religious head coverings.

In 2019, Noor Abukaram was disqualified from her high school cross-country meet for wearing a hijab. In 2020, the story caught the attention of Ohio state senator Teresa Gavarone, who went on to champion a bill drafted to avoid this from happening again. Said Gavarone, “No student athlete should ever have to choose between exercising their deeply held religious beliefs and participating in the sport they love.”

Despite some progress, overcoming religious discrimination in sports continues to be a hurdle at a global level. In early 2022, lawmakers in France proposed a ban on women wearing hijabs, along with any other “ostensible religious symbols”, in sporting competitions.

Religious athletes may also have unique needs during practice and games. People may assume that fasting players will be too weak to participate. However, asking the player how to accommodate them is always better than making assumptions. Not offering players breaks from play and a quiet space for religious observation is another form of indirect discrimination in sports.


  • Reschedule games and practices when possible. Be aware that some athletes' religions may not allow them to play on certain days of the week or times of day.
  • Let players take breaks during games and practices for religious observation. Give them a quiet, separate space for prayer.
  • Run single-gender or closed-to-the-public events. Athletes' religions may not allow them to mix with the opposite gender, whether it be other players, staff or spectators.
  • Accommodate religious dress in uniforms. Allow athletes to cover their heads or bodies according to their religious beliefs. Provide full-length undergarments to wear under shorts or short-sleeved tops.
  • Refresh fasting athletes. When athletes are fasting for religious reasons, they cannot drink water. Give them cold, wet towels to help them cool down.

Disability Discrimination in Sports

Disability discrimination in sports is perhaps the least talked-about form. Even if they are not being malicious, people may leave out athletes with disabilities because they don’t want to do the extra work to accommodate them.

In terms of participation, some of the barriers facing people with disabilities include:

  • Accessibility
  • Finding equipment and trainers
  • Psychological barriers
  • Media coverage and language

Institutionalized inequality and ableism present an ongoing challenge. However, strides are being made as athletes with disabilities such as the U.S. National Soccer Team’s Carson Pickett who has a limb difference bring the issue to the forefront.

Organizations like Move United are advocating for differently abled individuals to have equal access to sport and recreation in their community. Sports organizations need to provide a range of options when it comes to including athletes with disabilities.

Consider the inclusion spectrum, which includes everything from making no modifications to creating teams exclusively for those with disabilities. Asking athletes how you can meet their needs (rather than assuming) is the best way to combat disability discrimination in sports.


  • Make modifications. Modifying the teaching style, rules, equipment and environment of a sport can make it more accessible for athletes with disabilities. These modifications can be minor or major and should maintain the integrity of the sport.
  • Establish disability-friendly sports teams. Teams that are primarily for people with a disability (like mixed-ability wheelchair basketball) or only for people with a disability (like a blind soccer league) give athletes the chance to play a game that fits their needs.
  • Offer non-playing roles. If participating in an activity as an athlete is not possible, offer the person with a disability a role on the team like coach, referee, team president or volunteer.
  • Create accessible sports facilities. Install features that make the facility easier for those with disabilities to use (like ramps and equipment with Braille on the buttons). Have resources available to modify programming.
  • Remove economic barriers for athletes with disabilities. High transportation costs and the need for specialized equipment may keep people with disabilities from participating in sports. Offer financial solutions to those who wish to join your organization.

RELATED: Doping in Sports: What it Is and How to Stop it with Whistleblowing

LGBTQ Discrimination in Sports

LGBTQ athletes often face physical abuse, verbal threats, cyberbullying, and exclusion from team social activities. Teammates, opponents, staff, and spectators may also make homophobic jokes or use slurs.

According to study data provided by Out On the Fields and OutSport, it’s estimated that 80 per cent of participants around the world have experienced or witnessed homophobia in sport, with homophobic language being the most common. The studies also note that when it comes to homophobia, men and women are targeted almost equally when it comes to hearing slurs, at 84 per cent and 82 per cent respectfully.

Additionally, the two studies found that the most likely place for homophobia at sporting events to occur is in the spectator stands.

One recent example of homophobia being taken seriously in sports comes from the NBA. Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves was fined $40,000after posting an Instagram video of himself making homophobic remarks.

In 2021, United States Congress passed the Equality Act, which updates the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity. However, opponents of the Act worry about athletes who were assigned male at birth participating in women’s sports.

When it comes to the transgender community, there has been a great deal of discourse over the participation of trans athletes, particularly athletes who were assigned male at birth. Despite there being much support that there is no scientific case for excluding them, opponents still contend that allowing trans women to play alongside cisgender women gives trans athletes an advantage.

Swimmer Lia Thomas faced enormous backlash and found herself at the center on the debate about the participation of trans women in sports, after becoming the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division 1 title.


  • Require regular inclusion training. Players and staff should participate in an annual program that teaches how to avoid discrimination in sports.
  • Include LGBTQ in your harassment policy. Make sure everyone in your organization knows that discrimination and harassment for sexuality or gender identity is just as unacceptable as it is for religion, race or ability.
  • Run an anti-homophobia campaign. Participate in programs like the You Can Play project or AthleteAllyto show your organization supports LGBTQ athletes.
  • Promote positive spaces. Display signs and stickers around fields, arenas, locker rooms and offices to show your support for gay and transgender athletes.
  • Offer LGBTQ information on your website. Prominently display equity statements and include links to LGBTQ resources (e.g. gay teams or groups).

Addressing Inequalities in Sports

As a sports organization, it's essential to support diverse athletes and staff. In addition to the solutions listed above, use the resources written by the U.S. Center for Safe Sport a non-profit dedicated to eradicating all forms of abuse in sports. Keep in mind that it’s not just about discrimination in professional sports, it extends to sport at all levels.

As an employer, developing a simple complaint reporting system along with a comprehensive investigation process is in your best interest. Make sure you have strong anti-discrimination policies and training programs, an easy-to-use reporting mechanism, and a culture of psychological safety.

How are you handling reports of discrimination?

Use our EEO investigation checklist to ensure you take all the necessary steps the next time you receive a complaint from an athlete.

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What is discrimination in sports?

Discrimination in sports refers to unfair treatment or prejudice against individuals based on protected classes such as gender, race, religion, disability, sexuality, or gender identity, leading to exclusion, harassment, or unequal opportunities within the sporting community.

What is an example of sports inequality?

One example of sports inequality in the disparity in media coverage and financial compensation between male and female athletes. This is seen in the minimal increase in coverage of women's sports over the past three decades, despite significant achievements and contributions to their respective fields by female athletes.

How are females discriminated against in sports?

Females are discriminated against in sports through various means, including receiving less media coverage, making lower salaries than male athletes, having events scheduled at inopportune times for viewing live or on television, and being subjected to stereotypes and objectification that overshadow their athletic accomplishments.

How Case IQ Can Help

If you’re still simply reacting to discrimination, you’re putting your organization, your athletes and staff, and your reputation at risk.

With Case IQ’s powerful case management software, you can analyze historic case data so you can take preventive measures, reducing future incidents.

Case IQ is a flexible and configurable solution that can be integrated with your existing reporting systems and third-party hotlines, ensuring no reports slip through the cracks.

Learn more about how Case IQ can reduce resolution time and improve your organization’s investigationshere.