“Welcoming—not begrudging, not tolerant—welcoming.”
There is an old expression in social movements that sometimes it takes years to make days worth of progress but sometimes it takes only days to leap ahead years. In the fight for full citizenship for our LGBT friends and family, it certainly seems like every day another year mercifully moves forward.
As for the sports world, that longtime bulwark of homophobia, heteronormative socialization, and “no homo” jokes, we seem to be making decades of progress by the hour. We’ve seen NFL players stand up and organize for marriage equality. We’ve seen other players criticized by the league and media for what used to be accepted homophobic slurs. We’ve seen legitimate efforts to try and lay the groundwork for an out-and-proud active gay male athlete. We’ve seen new organizations and voices rise to the occasion to try and actually remake jock culture so it’s a force for LGBT inclusion instead of its historic opposite. And today, in a first for a major sports organization, we have the National Hockey League taking a stand against anti-LGBT bigotry in their sport.
The NHL and the NHLPA announced that they would be joining in a formal partnership with the You Can Play Project, whose mission is ending homophobia in the locker room and on the playing field. The league will adopt tough non-discriminatory language, have educational seminars for rookies, and confidential outreach support for closeted players. In the words of You Can Play founder Patrick Burke, “Today marks a historic step for LGBT equality in sports. The NHL and the NHLPA [NHL Players' Association] are stepping up to ensure that the hockey community is welcoming — not begrudging, not tolerant — welcoming to LGBT players, coaches, management or fans. Now with the culture of the hockey community behind us, we can do the important educational outreach to help everyone know how to be accepting. The NHL has long had a slogan – ‘Hockey Is For Everyone.’ We will work alongside our partners in the NHL and the NHLPA to continue to make that true.”
For those unfamiliar with the story of the origin of You Can Play, the Burke family is hockey royalty. Patrick’s father Brian Burke is a longtime, greatly respected hockey executive who became an impassioned advocate against homophobia when his son Brendan told his family he was gay. The following year, Brendan died in a car accident at the age of 21. After Brendan’s death, Patrick started You Can Play, in honor of his brother’s memory. They have been doing individual public service announcements and educational events with athletes for several years. Their work is also timely as rumors persist that an NHL player will come out in the months ahead. It makes sense that even Gary Bettman, perhaps the worst commissioner in the history of sports, would see the writing on the wall and understand that partnering with You Can Play makes sense for the league.
As Bettman said, "There's nothing that anybody can do that will get unanimous support in this day and age. You have to be comfortable that you're doing what you believe is the right thing. We as a family — the NHL, the Players' Assn., the players, team personnel and our fans — overwhelmingly believe we're doing the right thing."
It’s a remarkable statement of our times that good public relations, smart fan outreach, and mass appeal in sports means not being a homophobic goon but actually taking an institutional step toward combating bigotry. Now Bettman and the NHL have also put down a marker for other professional sports leagues to follow. In the NFL, DeMaurice Smith executive director of the NFL Players Association put his name on the “athlete’s brief” for marriage equality submitted to the Supreme Court. In addition, linebacker Brenden Ayanbadejo has spoken about four players looking to come out of the closet before the start of next season. The NHL’s move puts a very real pressure on Commissioner Roger Goodell to follow Bettman’s lead on an issue other than union busting.
In the NBA, players are speaking out against homophobia. League executive Rick Welts has also come out of the closet, and Charles Barkley has spoken proudly about his gay teammates. Perhaps David Stern’s last act as commissioner won’t be facilitating the removal of the Kings from Sacramento or once again crushing the soul of Seattle’s fan base, but making his league as well a place where homophobia is openly addressed.
The pressure is now on these other leagues and the Burkes are showing that jock culture – with all its energy, passion, and cultural cache, can be transformed into something powerful and positive. What a remarkable tribute to Brendan Burke. What a victory for every person who came out of the closet, or picked up a sign and marched to change the status quo. What a proud day in the battle to reclaim sports as a force for a greater good.