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Agents of change: Shola Aminu on LGBTQ inclusion in sports

In partnership with myGwork.

2021-08-23

Shola Aminu from DAZN spoke to Alim Kheraj from myGwork about LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports, how behaviour matters when it comes to allyship, and the impact that an inclusive organisation can make on the industry.

When Shola Aminu was growing up, basketball was his sport of choice. “Whether it was seeing how long I could spin the ball on the finger or how many shots I could get in the net without missing, that was always my thing,” he says over Zoom from New York, where he currently lives. “I think it was the first thing I actually remember being good at. I took immense pride in that.” 

“DAZN is a sports streaming platform available worldwide,” he explains. “Depending on where you are in the world you may know us as the global home of boxing, we're the global home of the Women's Champions League, and in some of our other European markets, we're home to some of the biggest domestic sports leagues [in countries] such as Japan, Germany and Italy.”

For five years, Shola worked in finance at DAZN, relocating to New York from London in 2018. But in 2020, he was appointed their first head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). “The unfortunate events that polarised during the summer last year regarding the injustices against Black people in the U.S. was the catalyst for inclusion efforts and conversations around the globe,” he says. “That was no different for me. It reignited the fire I have inside me for being a change agent."

As the company’s first head of DEI, Shola drives the company-wide DEI strategy, “actively working to fostering an inclusive and equitable culture so that everyone can bring their authentic self to work each day,” he adds. “This includes ensuring our DEI practices are embedded across all of our core functions, which can range from original content and programming but also our people strategy, learning and development, and more.”

DAZN is a sports streaming platform available worldwide

In the world of sport, a move for better inclusion can’t come at a better time. While there has been some progress when it comes to acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in sports, Shola suggests that greater representation and authentic allyship is still needed.

He points out two things – amongst many - that teams and leagues in sports need to address to become more inclusive: homophobic language and slurs, and more diversity in role models.

“We recently finished Pride month and I'm sure you didn't miss a few of your favourite brands or sports teams showcase their allyship with the community,” Shola says. “But I think brands need to be careful that their statements match their behaviour because it's obvious when a brand or team doesn't reflect this. For example, the attitude or statement could be 'We stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community worldwide and raise awareness for the community's issues', but the behaviour is homophobic language is prevalent on the playing field, in the locker room, and stands.”

Shola Aminu

With diversity in role models, Shola says that there needs to be more visibility, not only of LGBTQ+ people in decision making roles at leagues and teams, but with effective allies and role models, too. “Dwayne Wade has retired now,” he adds, “We’re seeing him use his platform to address issues faced by LGBTQ+ young people, which started following the transition of his 12 year old child. I thought it was awesome to see this type of impactful role modelling, as it gives a reference point for many others – particularly parents – who may not know where to start”.

He also highlights the England team and their captain Harry Kane’s show of solidarity for LGBTQ+ people during the recent 2020 UEFA European Football Championship as an example of this unconventional allyship. “For LGBTQ+ children,” Shola says, “when you see the England team and Harry Kane use their platform like this, it speaks to you even if you aren’t LGBTQ+.”

When it comes to athletes coming out, Shola names people like Carl Nassib, the first active NFL player to come out as gay publicly, British diver Tom Daley, international soccer star Megan Rapinoe and Canadian professional ice hockey player Luke Prokop. However, for visibility and representation to improve, there needs to be more role models for young diverse people.

DAZN is a sports streaming platform available worldwide

“The majority of athletes pick up their sport back in school because they either found it fun or they were incredibly good at it,” Shola explains. “You could see David Beckham or Serena Williams and people wanted to be just like that. If you're a child that identifies as LGBTQ+ and you don't see a role model, especially one that looks like you – it's important to flag intersectional experiences and identities – and you don't get the active support at the earlier stage of your sports career, it really can be the start of someone hiding their identity.”

What’s also important is that LGBTQ+ athletes can see that coming out won’t impact them on a professional and financial level when it comes to things like sponsorships and endorsement deals. “I think in time, as the LGBTQ+ experience becomes more normalised, we'll probably start to see more progress in this area and more open LGBTQ+ sports people,” he adds.

Shola believes that that DEI is one of the tools required to create tangible change, while also being fundamental to any company’s growth trajectory. “First and foremost,” he says, “if you're able to identify barriers to the development of your internal people, specifically those who fall within diverse groups, and you're able to combat that with equitable actions, then you're making tremendous progress.”

DAZN is a sports streaming platform available worldwide

He says he’s proud of the progress that DAZN has made in the short time that he has been head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, be that partnering with groups like myGwork, or with the company’s employee resource groups, which he says are fundamental to shaping DAZN’s inclusive culture.

“My personal mantra has always been to shake the table,” Shola says. “If history has taught us anything it's that there tends to be cyclical seasons in the world, when it comes to issues that marginalised people face, whether that's the Stonewall uprising or, more recently, the injustices against people of colour and more. You need people who are fearless enough to stand up, use their voices and use their smart minds to hold the industry accountable and to push progress forward.”

DAZN is a proud partner of myGwork, the LGBTQ+ business community.