Researcher Erik Denison has been awarded the inaugural Vicsport 2019 Peter Norman inclusion award for a world-first study which tested the effect of a program designed to combat homophobic language in sport.

Denison was given the award for designing the program, which was piloted during the 2018 season to youth rugby teams by current and former Melbourne Rebels players.

The program was born of research which found that 80 per cent of young players felt a gay player would feel welcome on their team, around the same number heard teammates using words like ‘fag’ and ‘poof’.

Denison’s research also found that homophobic and sexist language can drive young women away from sport.

The research was co-funded by the federal government, Rugby Australia, Rugby Victoria and the Woollahra Colleagues Rugby Club, with assistance from the Sydney Convicts.

Selected by a panel of industry representatives, Denison was awarded the inaugural honour for his efforts to bring about change to ensure that sport is safe, welcoming, fair and inclusive.

“This award recognises the work of a large group of people, particularly leaders within Victoria’s rugby union community and players from the Melbourne Rebels, who supported our research focused on ending homophobic behaviour in sport,” Denison said.

Denison was helped in testing the program last year by Melbourne Rebels players Tom English, Sam Jeffries, Jordy Reid, Dom Shipperley, Lachlan Mitchell and James King.

“It was brave of the Victorian rugby community to support this research so strongly,” Denison said.

“I know Rugby Victoria says rugby is a ‘game for all’, although sometimes these slogans don’t translate to the grassroots. This was not our experience with rugby.

“Everyone involved in rugby, from national, state and club leaders as well as coaches and players supported our research and efforts to end discrimination in all sports.

“This level of engagement is unheard of when conducting this type of research.”

Denison acknowledged the support of Melbourne Chargers Coaching Assistant Mitch Canning, retired Foundation Melbourne Rebel Lachlan Mitchell, and Rebels and Rugby Victoria board member Neil Hay as being integral to implementing the research.

One participant in the program, who was also studying to become a physical education teacher, said that “being part of this study made me think back and realise there probably were things I have said that weren’t right to say, but I wasn’t paying attention and thinking about what the words meant to other people.”

Rugby Victoria’s General Manager Chris Evans congratulated Mr Denison on his achievement and thanked him for initiating and leading this extremely important research project.

“Rugby Victoria is committed to developing, administering and promoting Rugby in Victoria while ensuring it is a game for all,” Mr Evans said.

“Rugby Victoria has taken a step in the right direction by implementing Erik’s research but we need to continue conversations in order to change attitudes and to ensure our Rugby Clubs are welcoming environments for all Victorians.”

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