I took issue with the NHL Player Survey results published September 15, 2016 by USA Today, specifically those associated with the one question on the survey regarding homosexuality. My masculinity studies meter and research methodology radar started going off more fiercely than the audience noise decibel scale on the big screen in the Bell Centre during Game 6 of the Eastern Division semi-final between Montreal and Boston in 2014 (yes, that sounded cheesy, but it worked).
USA Today surveyed 35 NHL players at the NHL/NHLPA Media Tour in Toronto. From this article, we don’t know if this survey was a spoken interview or a written questionnaire; ‘survey’ is a tricky word when used this way. We also don’t know if it was anonymous or conducted in front of other people. We also don’t know, based on this article itself, how these 35 players were recruited to participate—were they truly interested or were they more or less forced to participate on the basis of this being a sanctioned media event? Ultimately, readers have been given almost no information regarding the conditions under which the survey was conducted, which leads academics like me to pretty much have already dismissed the results. But that would be too easy. Let’s dig deeper, shall we?
Question number one on the survey, the results of which served as the title for the article in which the findings appear, was “would you be accepting of an openly gay teammate?” According to USA Today, all but one NHL player surveyed answered that yes, they would indeed be comfortable with a gay teammate. I want to make clear here and now that it’s commendable that such a question was asked because there was a time when we wouldn’t even dare talk about it, let alone ask an NHL player about it, who is supposed to be the poster boy for fast, tough, and straight masculine identity. I can’t deny the progress that has been made on that front. My job, however, is to unpack these things, so in light of that, I have two questions and an anecdote:
First, and most simply, why was a question about attitudes towards sexual orientation included in a survey that spent the rest of its time asking questions such as who will win the Art Ross trophy and how many goals will Phil Kessel score this year? Of course, the Media Tour is a limited and rare opportunity to gain access to NHL players, so one does their best to jam in as many questions as possible. Nonetheless, this was no way to do justice to a subject as timely and important as homophobia in ice hockey, or just the subject of LGBTQ athletes in general, frankly. The question was so inconsistent with the rest of the survey that I have a hard time giving the results credit and am a bit annoyed that it was used in the title because the survey really was not about gender and sexuality.
Second, and more importantly, when are we going move beyond celebrating NHL players who have said that they would be accepting of a gay teammate? In 2014, the NHL became the first professional league to have supporters of the You Can Play Project (LGBTQ athlete inclusion initiative) on every single team, yet it’s the only of the big four male sports in North America that has had little to no chatter about openly gay players. Jason Collins started with basketball, Michael Sam with football, and David Denson is bringing up the rear with his Major League Baseball affiliation—so where is hockey? With the inception of leagues such as the Toronto, New York City, and Chicago Gay Hockey Associations, it appears that gay hockey players have been segregated to their own leagues instead of being welcomed with open arms in the NHL. I don’t think that’s the case, but there is a reason that no one has come out in the NHL despite every single team partnering with a major LGBTQ athlete activism organization.
Here is my biggest issue with the situation. Between my own conversations with NHL players, grapevine talks with those associated with them, and the fact that other NFL players have already come out to Michael Sam privately, it is almost obvious that there are gay men currently playing in the NHL. In many cases, I’m told that their teammates are well aware and quite supportive, but the individual is concerned about negative reactions from fans, increased media attention, and the possible burden of the responsibility that comes with being such an important trailblazer. I think those are all valid concerns, but we need to stop repeating that players would be accepting of a gay teammate; we know this and the players know this. The USA Today article even said we know this when it quoted Calgary Flames President and You Can Play activist Brian Burke, who responded to the survey results with “I’m not surprised by that…I don’t think our players have an issue with gay players. I think the first player to come out is going to find an unbelievably welcome reception,” something Burke has been saying for years now. At this point, I believe this was a frivolous, misplaced question on a survey with an unfounded methodological framework and somehow it’s blowing up the Internet despite it not telling us anything new. I guess I’m glad the subject is getting more attention, at least.
In my own research, I was able to pull a bit more information out of male Midget AAA ice hockey players (more on this to come in future posts). Through conducting in-depth semi-structured qualitative interviews with members of a whole league that agreed to participate in my study, I was able to find out that the showers would be the most uncomfortable part of having a gay teammate because straight players don’t want to have to worry about being the object of someone’s desires while they’re at hockey. Some of them, however, said that this concern would quickly go away because teammates should all be treated the same and everyone would likely quickly become accustomed to the situation. I personally found it a bit presumptuous of them to think a gay player would be attracted to them (and don’t get me started on their treatment of girls and women and use of homophobic language), but I really appreciated their willingness to speak openly to me about it. Michael Sam chose to shower after his teammates out of respect for their possibly feeling the same way (here is a neat Deadspin article on that), but one of my participants insisted that it wouldn’t be fair for one person to feel that he has to wait for the entire team to finish showering—that the individual is a member of the team and should feel comfortable to participate as such.
So thanks, USA Today, for inspiring me to write this blog post and pushing me to challenge the frontiers of progress in the world of gay ice hockey players. But please…tell me something I don’t know.