October 2016


The relationship between sports and religion may be awkward, but that is no reason for sports administrators to dismiss religion as ‘not their business’.

Just as sports adapt their practices for people with disabilities, younger people, older people, and same sex people, sports must also consider religious beliefs in the administration of their programs.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission notes that discrimination and vilification on the basis of religion and belief discourages participation in the community and may infringe the right to freedom of religion and belief.

The issue of religious vilification is on many sports’ radars with a growing number producing codes to stamp out racial and religious vilification. Yet it is only one aspect that needs to be addressed in improving the sporting environment for players with different religious belief.

Outside of the vilification issue, insensitivities to accommodating religious diversity in a range of sports administration areas may discourage people from taking part in sport less regularly if at all.

These insensitivities may include but are not limited to:

  • training or playing days that conflict with religious observation
  • not providing a place or appropriate environment for observation or prayer
  • fasting and perceived effects on performance
  • other dietary requirements
  • conforming to a dress code
  • providing only communal change rooms
  • gender mixing at practices and games and or team transport
  • tolerance or appropriateness of sponsors or advertising logos on team uniforms that contradict religious observation (e.g. gambling, loan companies, alcohol).

Until recently, all British Premier League football players named man of the match were awarded a bottle of champagne. For some religions, alcohol is forbidden. Champagne has since been phased out and now all players receive a small trophy instead.

The BBC reports that when Liverpool won the League Cup final in 2012, players had the sensitivity to move the clothes of their doctor, a devout Muslim, out of the changing rooms so that alcohol wasn’t sprayed over them.

One area that is still evolving is the inclusion of certain people (such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people) or certain lifestyles (such as unwed motherhood) that other people claim to find offensive on the basis of religion. While sports may be as accommodating of both groups as possible, experts say the dividing line is often between someone spelling out what their faith means in practice (such as by wearing clothing or praying) and indicating their faith (such as expressing their disapproval of homosexuality), the latter of which would be deemed unacceptable.

While that issue remains fluid, there are still many steps that sports can take to create a more tolerant, encouraging and accommodating environment for people with different religious beliefs.

Examples include:

  • setting aside a quiet, demarcated space as a prayer area or religious observation area
  • allowing players to take breaks during practice for religious observation
  • creating set time for single gender practices or “closed to public” matches
  • accommodating dress codes in team uniforms
  • making wet towels available for fasting players to cool down on hot game days when they are unable to drink water.

Experts have noted that it is important that any adaptations to accommodate different religious perspectives should not erode the trust and cooperation of other religious or cultural groups with the sport. The other groups should be included or consulted on any club policy development so that they are educated and not alienated from the process.

The first step is to be educated about different religions and their beliefs. A good starting point is to take a look at the Sporting Equals website from the UK. Sporting Equals exists to actively promote greater involvement in sport and physical activity by disadvantaged communities particularly the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population.

While Canada has its own interpretation of religious discrimination, the non-profit organisation Ontario Education Services Corporation has prepared guidelines on accommodating religious diversity in schools that includes some practical tips that sports may find useful. See http://www.oesc-cseo.org/english/EquityInclusivity.html