By Simon Darnell
Sean Avery has transformed before our very eyes. From the tough guy, bad boy of the NHL, known for his cheap shots, on-ice antics, and off-ice dalliances with femme fatales – and provocations of the masculinity of other NHLers in comparison to his own – Avery has somehow turned into a Renaissance man: fashion intern, cultural critic and gay rights activist.
That last title is not insignificant, as his public support for gay marriage in the state of New York ostensibly parallels broader shifts in North American pro sports towards the combating of homophobia. As leagues like the NHL and NFL and even the NCAA speak out about the inappropriateness of anti-gay rhetoric and in-game slurs, Avery seems now to have been ahead of the curve. Or at least leading the pack, a pack still populated by some dunder-headed bigots who don’t read LZ Granderson or know what John Amaechi is doing for the forthcoming London Olympics in 2012.
It’s been a fascinating metamorphosis for the Rangers provocateur. Avery, seemingly over night, has somehow come to represent the inevitable enlightenment of pro sports, where the last bastions of masculinity are now beginning to realize the error of their homophobic ways and come to understand that even the rink is off limits when you wish you had just one last place to drop an f-bomb. (The three letter kind, not the four).
This all apparently came to a head this week when Wayne Simmonds of the Flyers allegedly tossed a homophobic slur at Avery during a pre-season game. Simmonds, while not formally punished by the NHL, came under significant criticism almost immediately, and certainly ironically, afterwards. (Ironically because Simmonds himself was still in the middle of dealing with his own nasty experiences with hatred after a banana was thrown at him during a game. Simmonds is Black. Avery, we assume, is not gay).
This incident – the gender one, not the race one – offered the NHL an important chance to show off its progressive bona fides. Leading the charge was Leafs GM Brian Burke – he who values ‘truculence’ and stay at home defencemen in the most old school of ways – to opine that such name-calling has ‘no place in the game.’ Burke’s late son Brendan, of course, was involved in high-level hockey while being out of the closet, a truly important combination, and not one with many other parallel examples in the game.
Which is really the part of all of this that smacks of so much disingenuousness. When Burke makes such statements, is he talking about the game of hockey today? The same one that I watch? I would argue that homophobia does still have a place in the game and is still part of the culture. At the very least, it remains a yardstick by which men mark the boundaries and territories of what professional sports like hockey are and are not, and who is in and out, literally or otherwise.
(What evidence is there of this, you ask? I clearly don’t have anything irrefutable but try this: while it’s not the most representative of samples, take a browse through the ‘thoughts’ posted by espn.com readers in response to Burke’s comments. And then tell me homophobia isn’t accepted in sports culture anymore).
My frustration isn’t with Burke per se. Burke’s comments are nothing but laudable, not only given his family history, but also in the broader cultural struggle to deconstruct homophobia and circumvent the manufactured fear of gay people. In fact, I would argue that Burke’s comments are particularly courageous given the continued intractability of hetero-normativity in professional sports. What I take issue with is the general sneakiness that seems to accompany what we’ve been and are being sold by organizations like the NHL: that there’s no place for homophobia in their sport when everything I understand and observe about NHL hockey tells me that its still often business as usual in the day to day sexual politics of the league. I’m not an insider, granted. But I also have seen little evidence that would make me think that Simmonds’ slur at Avery was an aberration. (Neither, it must be mentioned, was the less than subtle assertion of hockey as a White sport that was so neatly and thoroughly represented in the banana toss).
Which brings us back to Sean Avery. If Avery has decided he is in a position to make a stand about homophobia in hockey, he is to be commended. We should all support any anti-homophobia action he is willing to take (while remembering, perhaps, his knack for finding the spotlight). But regardless of what Avery – or Burke – actually does or says or endures on or off the ice, it would be a mistake to conclude that these men represent the inexorable and universal march towards sexual and gender equality within the culture of hockey. Let’s hope this is in fact happening. But I can’t shake the feeling that it hasn’t happened yet, and certainly not with the transparency and clairvoyance of the NHL’s preferred narrative. There is much work to be done.
Indeed, until the NHL itself ‘comes out’ and acknowledges the presence and rootedness of homophobia, and details a plan to combat it, Avery will seem pretty light to me. And he’s likely to keep being called a ‘fuckin’ fag’ in the meantime.