Victorian Rugby leads on diversity research

by Rugby Vic Media

Researchers from Monash University are commending members of the rugby community in Victoria for their “genuine and authentic” desire to stamp out discrimination and make rugby an inclusive and welcoming sport for all.

The researchers just completed a historic Commonwealth-backed study examining language and attitudes among male players aged 16-20. All U18 and Colts teams in the state agreed to participate in the research, and between 90-100% of players on those teams completed multiple surveys during the course of the season, including players from the Harlequins shown above.

The results from the surveys are being used to develop and measure the impact of new programs aimed at reducing discriminatory language and helping clubs to be more welcoming, particularly for women and gay people. One programs to address discrimination has already been tested. It was an education program designed to reduce homophobic language, which studies have found is very common in rugby, though typically thoughtless and not meant to cause harm.

The program was delivered over the season by current and former Rebels players, including Tom English, Sam Jeffries, Jordy Reid, Dom Shipperly, Lachlan Mitchell and James King. Erik Denison, from Monash’s Behavioural Sciences Laboratory, is the lead researcher of the Sport Inclusion Project.

We asked him to answer some of the common questions people asked about the research.

Why is this research being conducted?

There is a big focus right now in all sports on increasing participation through attracting a wider range of people to the sport, including people from different cultural backgrounds, women, and gay people. We know from the research that sporting clubs that are diverse and inclusive have deeper connections to their local community and are more successful on all measures, including participation, the scoreboard, and volunteer resources. Surprisingly there has been very little research into how to help clubs become more diverse and grow participation. For example, we were not able to find any studies which measured the effectiveness of programs to encourage girls to continue playing sport as they become teenagers, a key age when many drop out. A key reason is fear of stigma for playing ‘male’ sports. Equally, we know from many previous studies that negative language about gay people remains common, particularly in men’s team sport. This language both deters gay kids from sport and being exposed to this language increases the likelihood these kids will attempt suicide or self-harm. No one has examined why this language continues or how best to change this behaviour. Ultimately we know that any programs developed need to not only be effective, but also be practical and pragmatic to implement in community sport, which is tight on resources and mostly run by volunteers.

What was the response from clubs?

We were amazed by how supportive and engaged the rugby community was of this research. I know that Rugby Victoria says it wants to create a ‘game for all’ but sometimes these kinds of vision statements, from state or national sporting bodies, are not supported at the grassroots. This seems not to be the case in rugby, where we found people really were genuine and authentic in their desire to ensure the sport is welcoming and no one experiences discrimination or feels excluded. One interesting experience for me was the realisation that my views of some clubs and whether they would participate in this research was affected by prejudice. Researchers are human and just like everyone we often judge people based on limited information, such as things we hear or see in the media. At the start of the season, when we started conducting the surveys, there was a lot of media attention on comments about gay people by Israel Folau and commentary about the Pacific Island community supporting his views. Based on this I expected we’d face a lot of push-back from the leaders at clubs with a high proportion of Pacific Islander players. We found the opposite. We found the leaders, such as Endeavour Hills president Jeff Lemalu, and players at these clubs, were the most supportive, with players often coming up to the research team after they had completed the survey, shaking our hands and thanking us.

What happens next? Over the next few months we will be analysing the data to see if the program delivered by the Rebels this season had an effect on homophobic language. We’ve already conducted a preliminary analysis and although 78% of players reported hearing teammates use words like fag and poof in the past two weeks, it does not appear that this language is being used with any intent to express homophobia or negative views about gay people. It is generally quite thoughtless. We’ve also begun planning the research in women’s sport for next season, focused on supporting girls to continue playing sport as they become teenagers. We hope to conduct this research in rugby, given our great experience this year and I think the sport could really benefit from this study. However, whether we can do this research in rugby will depend on whether the funding we receive comes with any requirements to conduct this study in another sport, such as AFL or soccer.


A massive thanks to Erik Denison from Monash University for initiating and leading this important research project.