Uncovering the Silences: Structural roadblocks to obtaining information in ice hockey research

Silence

The boy code, the code of silence, ‘what happens between the boys stays between the boys’—however you refer to it, there is a not-so-unwritten rule that in boys’ and men’s hockey it is often best to keep quiet. Whether it’s players standing by quietly during dangerous hazing or team authorities keeping player misbehaviour under wraps, there is a lot of silence. But the more I delve into my research on heterosexism in ice hockey (the assumption that being straight is somehow better or universal), the more I notice other kinds of silences that pose challenges to both social and academic progress. I’m thinking about structural impositions of silence by things like confidentiality and anonymity agreements or parental/guardian consent for minors participate. Both originate in protocols relating to safe and responsible ways of collecting information that are imposed by research ethics boards. I’ll begin by discussing the more common silences that I first listed and will then elaborate on the latter ones.

Common Silences

Research on male team-based sports shows that there is a code of silence or a selective process of information sharing among athletes and team authorities. The same can be said about other groups of close-knit men, like fraternities or the military. For example, until 2011, former US President Bill Clinton had formalized silence around homosexuality in the military when he told personnel: “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, don’t harass” (read about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy here). Hockey is not altogether different—players use homosexuality to mock and belittle one another and there seems to be an assumption that everyone is straight. Just look at Ryan Getzlaf’s anti-gay comment during a game four of the NHL’s Western Conference Finals this past season. He was fined $10,000, which I would argue underrepresented the offense and sent the message that this kind of behaviour isn’t that bad. Fans also started a GoFundMe page to raise money to pay the fine on his behalf because they thought it was unfair. Legitimizing heterosexism prevents meaningful conversations about homosexuality, in particular because very few members of hockey culture are willing to speak out about the necessity of inclusion. It creates a silence.

Another kind of silence is that associated with player behaviour and the inner workings of the team environment. Sociologist Kristi Allain (2008; 2014) conducted interviews with male players who she said gave her censored and diplomatic accounts of life in hockey culture, making sure to avoid stories of questionable conduct or information that made the team look divided. She says that her interviewees did the same—they offered different accounts of the same situation, such as an altercation between teammates that took place despite Allain having been told that the players all got along famously all the time.

I had the exact same experience talking to Major Junior hockey players during my Master’s research. At the Midget AAA level (my PhD research), players were willing to tell me that they spoke about me sexually amongst themselves, but wouldn’t tell me what they said. At the U Sports level (during my undergraduate honours research), I learned from my interviews with former Junior hockey players that it was easiest to keep quiet about dangerous hazing they faced or witnessed in order to not draw criticism or abuse from other players.

In sum, I’ve discovered that male ice hockey players have learned to compartmentalize their behaviour in order to hide it from the public or other judgmental eyes and ears. They are taught to be silent by coaches, teammates, and others in order to avoid media attention or offending outsiders. The willingness of some players to discuss these issues demonstrates that the code of silence is inconsistent in its boundaries and apertures.

Overlooked Silences

An interesting problem I came up against is the fact that when players did break the code of silence, they were able to hide behind another code that was structurally imposed by confidentiality and anonymity agreements at the University Research Ethics Board level (which adheres to the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans). This ethical protocol became a tool that players and teams could access and use to not take responsibility for homophobia, heterosexism, and other questionable conduct such as underage alcohol consumption and racism. At the same time, it also meant that they could express their disagreement with heterosexism in hockey without being judged for straying from the norm. The agreement to not disclose their identities guaranteed that, for the most part, they could speak to me about almost anything and remain untouched.

This was a double-edged sword for me: on the one hand, how am I going to create change and raise awareness on things like homophobia if players are willing to discuss it, but not discuss it publicly? How can we move forward if no one is willing to step up and speak out in support of things like LGBTQ+ inclusion and they’re able to use formal research protocol as their cover? On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to forego the research entirely—is it not better to get the information for the sake of having it despite the silences around who is providing it to me? It’s a double-edged sword in the case of hockey players being role models as well; to lift confidentiality and anonymity agreements means that, depending on whether my audience deems the information divulged as positive or negative, the players could be celebrated, shamed, or both. I’m still working on how to rectify this challenge, but I figure that, to start, participants must be willing to divulge their identities.

The next structural (potential) silence I faced centered on consent. From an ethical perspective, the University Research Ethics Board requires that parents or guardians provide consent on behalf of the players I interview. This facilitated silence and created questions about who has the agency to speak. In their work on why children and youth are understudied in the sociology of sport, Michael Messner and Michela Musto (2014) speculate that one reason for this dearth of research could be the challenges associated with gatekeepers (such as ethics boards, coaches, and parents or guardians) who limit access to children and youth. These individuals are concerned with keeping participants safe from social or psychological harm, which makes sense—I’m not here to argue that youth won’t benefit from having adults help them navigate their participation in conversations with me, a stranger, about potentially personal or confusing subjects like sexuality. I also won’t argue that ethics boards are doing anyone a disservice by making sure I’ve done my homework on how to interact with minors and address potential crises. I’m more concerned with information falling through the cracks or being stifled depending on who consented and why. I’ll explain in the next paragraph.

In order to access underage Midget AAA players, I had to go through four walls: the University Research Ethics Board, a league president, coaches, and parents. Each decided whether or not I would proceed to the next level of access. The underage players constituted a fifth wall, but the line between them and their consent-givers was blurred. By placing the decision in the hands of someone else, a range of silences could have been and were created. For example, I received an unsigned consent form from a parent who wrote on it that their child was too busy with schoolwork to participate in the study (despite the fact that research-related activity was mostly scheduled during hockey practice). Was that the parent’s decision or the player’s? It led me to wonder how parents and guardians may have affected whether or not players chose to participate or even whether or not they felt coerced to agree or decline.

To connect to a broader consent debate as an example, there was conflict over the Alberta government’s declaration that underage students do not require consent from parents and guardians to join Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs) in their schools (read about it here). If other student groups and clubs don’t require consent for participation, why should GSAs? The second we implicate sexuality, it seems that parents should be involved. But what if a seventeen-year old closeted queer risks being victimized by their parents should their involvement in a GSA be common knowledge? I hold that this issue is more important than whether or not underage hockey players participate in interviews with me, but what are the implications of leaving it up to parents and guardians?

It could have gone either way in my case. Parents could have declined when players wanted to participate or players could have been/felt coerced into participating despite the fact that I communicated that it was indeed up to the player to make the final decision to be interviewed. It leaves me wondering why players did or did not participate and what information may or may not have been shared as a result of these dynamics. There is a body of scholarship that argues that youth are very much capable of making their own decisions and that they can be aware of their implications (Dyck, 2012; Eitzen, 2012; Messner & Musto, 2014), so we do have tools to help at least begin to address the issue.

I contend that these structural silences are just as important as the silences created by members of the hockey community when we think about moving forward socially and academically. This ethical protocol is unintentionally bridling the research process by facilitating silence in a context that seeks specifically to move beyond silence. This is a reminder that we must think about ways to conduct ethical and responsible research that keep participants safe while still propelling knowledge collection and production forward.

References:

Allain, K. (2014). “What happens in the room stays in the room”: conducting research
with young men in the Canadian Hockey League. Qualitative Research in Sport,
Exercise, and Health, 6(2), 205–219. 

Allain, K. A. (2008). “Real Fast and Tough”: The Construction of Canadian Hockey
Masculinity. Sociology of Sport Journal, 25, 462–481.

Dyck, N. (2012). Fields of Play: An Ethnography of Children’s Sports. North York:University
of Toronto Press.

Eitzen, D. S. (2012). Fair and Foul: Beyond the Myths and Paradoxes of Sport (5th ed.).
Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

Messner, M. A., & Musto, M. (2014). Where are the Kids? Sociology of Sport Journal, 31(1),
102–122.

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