Roundtable: The NHL and NHLPA Partner with the You Can Play Project

Roundtables are an occasional feature on Hockey in Society. Roundtables will present brief commentaries from Hockey in Society contributors on pressing or timely issues within hockey and its culture, with the aim of presenting a diverse range of critical viewpoints on the topic under discussion.

On April 11, the NHL and NHL Player’s Association announced a joint partnership with the You Can Play Project, an anti-homophobia initiative started by NHL scout Patrick Burke. The partnership will aim to create a welcoming environment for hockey players of all sexual orientations and to provide educational resources to incoming and current players. From You Can Play’s press release:

The official partnership with You Can Play includes a significant commitment to education and training for teams, players, media and fans plus the production and broadcast of more public service announcements.  The NHL becomes the first major American professional sports league to officially partner with an LGBT advocacy group on this scale. . . .

You Can Play will conduct seminars at the NHL’s rookie symposium to educate young prospects on LGBT issues. In addition, You Can Play will make its resources and personnel available to each individual team as desired. The NHLPA and NHL also will work with You Can Play to integrate the project into their Behavioral Health Program, enabling players to confidentially seek counseling or simply ask questions regarding matters of sexual orientation.

Regular readers of Hockey in Society will know that issues of homophobia in or related to hockey cultures have been a prominent feature on this blog – from the notable recent changes to hockey’s traditionally homophobic culture, to Brian Burke’s strident and public anti-homophobia stance, to the Canadian Conservative government’s downplaying of Canada’s support of gay marriage in favour of publicizing famous hockey victories, to, of course, the emergence of the You Can Play project in 2012. Given this history of critical treatment of LGBTQ issues in hockey and the significance of the newly formed partnership, Hockey in Society is proud to present its second Roundtable on this topic. After the jump, you will find commentary from three Hockey in Society contributors: Courtney Szto, Matt Ventresca, and Alvin Ma. Hopefully these differing views shed valuable light on the issue of homophobia in hockey cultures and spark important debate and discussion on this subject and related issues.

Courtney Szto – “The first step in an active process for acceptance across the league and sport”

I applaud the NHL’s move to partner with the You Can Play program.  Considering they have a social responsibility program called “Hockey is for Everyone” (even though we know hockey is not), it is about time they stopped using the program as window-dressing and started addressing how exclusive hockey actually is.  It is a move that, hopefully, will encourage other leagues to follow suit.  When Major League baseball added sexuality into its 2011 collective bargaining agreement it was bold move to protect the safety of gay players, but one New York Mets player admitted to the press that “most of us [players] are still neanderthals” and would be uncomfortable with an openly gay player in the locker room.  I assume there will be similar sentiments in the NHL but change has to start somewhere.

When the NHL announcement was made a friend of mine commented on my Facebook wall that You Can Play gives the impression that only talent will create acceptance, which leaves recreational players in limbo because maybe if they can’t play and are gay then they won’t be welcomed into sporting arenas. This is a valid point but at this time, for professional sport, talent should be the determining factor. We must also acknowledge that ‘talent’ is the result of other life privileges (e.g., race, class, gender, physicality, able-ness etc.) but, again, we have to start somewhere.  I hope that this is the first step in an active process for acceptance across the league and sport. As far as recreational sport goes, it is up to us recreational players to change the tone of the locker room.

Alvin Ma – “The ideal is to one day make the cause irrelevant”

Once you can play, then what? University courses in the social sciences, particularly a recent one about international development by Dr. Peter Donnelly, have taught me that an exit strategy is required for any sort of successful implementation of a particular cause. The ideal is to one day make the cause irrelevant by ceasing to have this problem. With regard to homophobia, it is unfortunately still present in the predominant masculine subculture of locker rooms. While there are signs of progress, such as this joint NHL-NHLPA official partnership, there are also hurdles. Although education at an NHL rookie symposium would be a positive step in the right direction, these issues must equally be addressed at the thousands of leagues, professional and amateur, below the NHL.

For the record, I’m a Christian with more liberal social tendencies on LGBTQ issues, such as support for same-sex marriage and the condemnation of all forms of prejudice and bullying. However, there are Christians and people of various other traditional beliefs who are less keen on support. If in rural Manitoba, widespread opposition to gay-straight alliances and vitriol against a gay couple exist, how would the culture in their local hockey teams look? Furthermore, what about even more conservative communities in the booming hockey towns in the rural southern United States?

It’s nice to know that Patrick Burke knows the reality of the politics by stating: “If there are athletes that are opposed to gay marriage because of their personal beliefs, but still would support a gay teammate because they believe they should treat all of their teammates with dignity, they can participate in You Can Play knowing that our message will only ever be that LGBTQ teammates should be safe in the locker room.”

As long as the official partnership framing continues to be done in an “apolitical, areligious” stance against hatred premised on homophobia (whether or not I or other even more progressively-minded individuals personally think it goes far enough), the mission of this project would be achieved more easily and thus it would be rendered irrelevant.

Matt Ventresca – “A massive step in the right direction.  But by no means inclusion and by no means equality”

Make no doubt about it, the formal partnership between the NHL and the You Can Play project is a landmark program with major implications both inside and outside of the world of sport. I even have to admit (dare I say it!) that I felt a little bit of nationalistic pride when the announcement was first made; the league that for better or worse represents the pinnacle of the sport most beloved in Canada was the first major pro sports league in North America to undertake a gay rights campaign. I have nothing but praise for Patrick Burke – follow this guy on twitter (@BurkieYCP), he tirelessly travels the continent giving talks at schools and sporting events in support of the You Can Play cause. Heck, even the tweedle dee and tweedle dum tandem of Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr deserve some credit for taking the lead on this important initiative. This campaign will undoubtedly encourage change in how LGBTQ issues are taken up within the culture of the National Hockey League and other countless other hockey organizations. The extent of this change, however, and how much this campaign will affect a current (or future) LGTBQ player’s willingness to publicly proclaim his sexual identit(ies), remains to be seen.

I share these concerns with Left Hook’s editor Tyler Shipley who, in an article outlining the “dogged persistence of homophobia in hockey,” flagged some issues with some of the early You Can Play promos (this is mandatory reading for anyone interested in LGBTQ issues in hockey). Shipley argues that, despite the good intentions of You Can Play, the campaign “notably features players who represent extreme forms of masculinity – they are usually the fighters, grinders, tough guys, men with grizzled beards or visible scars – suggesting that while these guys may vocally support young gay athletes, they are chosen because they, themselves, read as heterosexual and ‘manly.’” The campaign’s messaging suggests that the NHL is willing to support gay athletes as long as the league’s culture of violent masculinity is left undisturbed. This is similarly evident, I would argue, in the highly publicized caveat that accompanies the campaign’s message of tolerance: “You Can Play…if you’re good enough.” I imagine the constant repetition of this additional disclaimer is meant to assure traditionalists that no special accommodations will be given to players who identify as LBGTQ. But it also ensures that if and when a player does come out his on-ice performance will be closely (and perhaps unfairly) scrutinized. This surveillance will inevitably include careful assessment of the player’s toughness and grit (READ: show us you’re still as manly as you should be) and any hint of weakness or vulnerability (READ: effeminacy or “gayness”) will be awkwardly deliberated on TV panels and across social media.

I am quite hopeful that this program will have immediate and significant effects, such as eliminating homophobic (and misogynistic) slurs from hockey’s trash talk lexicon. But is this enough? I don’t think You Can Play is meant to address how hockey’s promotion of a narrow version of masculinity premised on violence and intimidation has unfortunate consequences for those who do not embody this gender identity or choose not to endorse this masculine code. The message from Burke, the NHL and the NHLPA seems to be that this partnership is simply about inclusion, not making fundamental changes to the sport and its value system. But can you have one without the other? The implicit relationship between the NHL’s over-the-top glorification of violence, the masculine cultures of team locker rooms and the current invisibility of the league’s gay players is not inconsequential and should not be ignored. Without interrogating the broader culture of the NHL, You Can Play appears to be sending the message that gay men can be included as long as they still successfully fulfill the sport’s other masculine requirements – you can be different, but not too different. Don’t get me wrong. Given the history of homophobia in the culture of many professional sports, the NHL and NHLPA’s partnership with You Can Play partnership is a massive step in the right direction. But it’s by no means inclusion and by no means equality. I know we can do better.

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About markdavidnorman
Mark is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, where he researches sociocultural issues in sport and physical cultures. He is also a life-long hockey fan, becoming obsessed with the sport at a young age and cheering for the Vancouver Canucks for over two (mostly futile) decades. In addition to his work at Hockey in Society, Mark has been active as a fan hockey blogger for over three years. Mark has worked as a Research Assistant at York University (Toronto, ON) and the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto. He has presented his research at numerous academic conferences and been published in the Sociology of Sport Journal and Journal of Sport and Social Issues.

One Response to Roundtable: The NHL and NHLPA Partner with the You Can Play Project

  1. Pingback: KRG in the Media: Matt Ventresca – King Research Group

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