In April of this year, it was announced that the NHL, the NHLPA and You Can Play, an organization focused on eliminating homophobia in sports, have partnered up, and are going to work together to make hockey more accepting of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
You Can Play, an organization co-founded by Patrick Burke (son of former Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke), is dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports. The NHL is the first of the major sports leagues in North America to join with any anti-homophobia organization, which is a prime example of the great steps the league is making to be the most inclusive professional sports league. Many NHLers have openly voiced their support of the organization, with several groups of them taking part in promotional commercials for You Can Play. Two current NHL players, Tommy Wingels and Andy Miele, are even on the advisory board, demonstrating the commitment of the league to fight homophobia. The organization goes by the slogan “If you can play, you can play”, a mentality that the NHL is very proud to both support and follow. Commissioner Gary Bettman pointed out that the NHL’s slogan is “Hockey is for Everyone”, and feels that the partnership with You Can Play reinforces that position. You Can Play will be holding seminars at the NHL’s rookie symposium, while at the same time making their resources available to all NHL teams and players.
This news was also followed by the more recent story of basketball player Jason Collins publicly coming out, becoming the first openly gay athlete to be currently playing in any of the major sports leagues in North America. The amount of support that Collins has received from teammates, players, coaches and general managers from around the league has been tremendous, and the public has reacted in a generally positive manner. It is a very firm statement of how far the world of sports has come with regards to eradicating homophobia.
However, it is still not far enough.
What Jason Collins did by being the first openly gay athlete in a major sport took great courage. He himself stated that he did not intend to become the first openly gay athlete, it was simply the time to do it. He has done what no one else has done, and he is incredibly brave to do so. The irony is that it shouldn’t be considered heroic to be who you are. The LGBT community has made incredible steps in the last few decades to being seen as equals in society, which is exactly what they deserve.
An area that has been slower to react, however, is the world of sports. Homophobic slurs and stereotypes still reign supreme in many locker rooms and arenas, both in professional and amateur sports. For too long have many sports (hockey, football, etc.) been tagged as heterosexual sports, while others are labelled as ‘gay sports’. I cannot tell you how many times have I heard people make rude comments like “leave figure skating to the gays”, along with many other vulgar slurs being casually thrown around. Whether you are gay, straight, or anywhere in between has absolutely no impact on your skill in sports. It should also have no effect on how you are treated in the locker room.
Everyone deserves to be comfortable in their own skin, and being an athlete is no exception. At this moment in time many athletes, both professional and amateur, do not feel comfortable being openly gay. That is not their problem, but ours. They have the right to be who they are, free of judgement. They have the right to be proud of who they are, instead of being labelled, stigmatized and shamed into hiding.
What You Can Play and the NHL is doing is a great step forward to getting rid of homophobia in hockey (and other sports). Acceptance starts at a young age. If athletes are taught from a young age that sexual orientation has nothing to do with skill, drive and passion in sports, maybe we will begin to see a more accepting culture. Society in general has become increasingly accepting of the LGBT, and although there is still much work do be done, we are moving in the right direction. The world of sports is lagging behind, but organizations like You Can Play combined with the open mindedness of leagues like the NHL will help bring sports closer to the acceptance the LGBT community deserves.
I look forward to the day where a gay athlete is no longer a news story.