We’re approximately five months out of the NHL’s Hockey Is For Everyone Month, which was dedicated to inclusion in ice hockey, particularly the LGBTQ+ community. As part of the effort, some NHL teams hosted a You Can Play night in partnership with the You Can Play Project, a non-profit organization that has partnered with the NHL to make sport a safe place for all athletes regardless of their gender or sexual identity. In March of this year, I wrote a post (click here) on my implication in these events and some brief discussion of whether or not hockey is indeed more inclusive. In short, while I do think boys’ and men’s hockey is becoming a safer place, a couple recent events have left me questioning just how much I should be celebrating its progress.
First, the Captain (read: leader and role model) of the Anaheim Ducks, Ryan Getzlaf, was handed an (in my opinion) insignificant fine for using anti-gay language during a 2017 playoff game. Getzlaf issued a meagre apology and fans came out in droves on social media and in comment sections to argue that the language players use is not reflective of their attitudes towards sexuality itself and that, ultimately, this was not a big deal. I will grant that there is some validity to this argument. I grew up calling things ‘gay’ when I thought they were ridiculous, unfair, or disagreeable and it took me a long time to fully eliminate it from my vocabulary due to force of habit. Did I have any problems with homosexuality? Of course not. But that was ten years ago, I am not proud of it, and much like the word ‘retarded’, we now know that this kind of language, regardless of its intent, is both affective and offensive. It should undoubtedly be eradicated from hockey culture and we are officially running late on that task. If the research behind this interests you, start by checking out sociologist CJ Pascoe’s work on ‘fag discourse’—anti-gay language used casually among young people to deride or ridicule one another.
The Getzlaf incident bothered me, but I am more perplexed by this second event, which the NHL perpetrated on its own. That is to say, the league may have no control over what comes out of a player’s mouth to contradict its efforts at inclusion, but it certainly has control over its own actions. The NHL announced this week that the 2018 Draft will be held in Dallas, Texas. Here are two things you should know about Dallas and Texas: 1) The Dallas Stars actively chose to forego a You Can Play night during Hockey Is For Everyone Month; 2) the Texas Senate essentially just approved an anti-transgender law two weeks before the NHL made its announcement. This law, known as ‘the bathroom bill’, forces public school students to use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex on their birth certificate. This means that a multitude of trans people cannot use the bathroom that matches their current gender identity, which can lead to all kinds of discrimination and that includes physical violence.
When I first heard the Draft news, I thought to myself: no problem. This exact issue came up around the 2017 NBA All-Star Game and the league immediately changed the location
to reflect its values. Surely the NHL will do the same. [Insert cricket sounds…] Nothing. Curtis McKenzie didn’t even release anything as simple as a tweet and he’s the Stars’ official You Can Play Project Ambassador. Let me be clear: not only did the NHL choose to announce the location of the draft after this controversy over the bill had started, but they also have yet to address it in any way amidst their criticisms for having done so. Even the You Can Play Project released a statement encouraging the league to consider the message it is sending regarding its stance on inclusion. The NHL has just put itself in a position to be accused of disregarding the very human rights that it has worked to promote.
The Draft announcement then made me circle back to Getzlaf. I realized that the way the NHL dealt with his slur mirrored the way it has dealt with the Draft, only this time MLB was involved and not the NBA. Not long before the Getzlaf incident, Kevin Pillar of the Toronto Blue Jays also used anti-gay language during a game. He was fined, suspended, he issued an extensive apology, he donated his forfeited salary to the You Can Play Project and PFLAG, and is now doing speaking engagements on the importance of inclusion. Whether or not he is actually sorry is beyond me, but the message was certainly clear that what he did was de facto intolerable. Then we have Getzlaf, who was fined $10,000 by the NHL and mostly seemed sorry that he got caught. Here is the recent pattern: professional athlete uses inappropriate language, is dealt a hefty punishment. NHL player uses inappropriate language, is slapped on the wrist. Professional sports team schedules a major event in a location that does not support LGBTQ+ rights, changes the event location. NHL schedules a major event in a location that does not support LGBTQ+ rights, nothing happens.
The NHL was the first professional league of the big four (NBA, MLB, NFL) to sign a partnership with the You Can Play Project back in 2013 and it remains the only league of those four that does not or has not housed an openly gay player or affiliate. It is becoming more and more difficult to defend hockey culture and celebrate its progress and that’s coming from me, the first person to argue that hockey culture is improving. I do not discount the league’s efforts; I am involved with the You Can Play Project and I conduct research on sexuality and ice hockey specifically because I believe that I’m contributing to progressive change. Moreover, the work I do with youth shows me that hatred and prejudice are not inherent. For instance, I recently gave a talk on inclusion and had a nine-year-old posit that ‘homophobia’ meant being afraid to leave your house. Kids learn hate and although I understand that they probably have no idea what a bathroom bill is, I guarantee that they are watching the NHL and its players as they grow up and are taking notes. The You Can Play Project alluded to this in their statement about the message being communicated to fans (and not just LGBTQ+ athletes, you’ll note).
Ryan Getzlaf may not have been dealt with according to my standards, but at least it was communicated by the league that what he did was unacceptable. Why is the league then exempt from upholding these values? The NHL has an opportunity to get the 2018 Draft right despite the initial misstep of making the announcement after the trans rights issue erupted. Perhaps I’m naive, but I am still holding out hope that it will happen.