The National Hockey League (NHL) and the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) are back in the spotlight. This time, however, the newspaper headlines are not begging for them to compromise, end a lockout, and save the second half of the hockey season. Instead, the NHL and NHLPA captured the attention of media, fans, and people around the world when they publicly announced their partnership with You Can Play, an advocacy group focused on ensuring equality and respect for all athletes regardless of sexual orientation. While the policies of most major professional leagues prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, this newly formed alliance represents perhaps the most comprehensive–and certainly the most public–measure taken by a major professional league in support of gay athletes. They are breaking down barriers.

While some may credit the timing of this announcement to the Supreme Court’s consideration of the constitutionality of DOMA, the NHL, NHLPA, and You Can Play assert that they are not engaging in a political venture. All parties recognize and acknowledge that people hold differing views, whether personal, religious, or political, on the matter of same-sex rights, and they stress that they are not trying to lobby or influence people’s beliefs. In fact, Patrick Burke, founder of You Can Play, emphasizes that the group and its mission are apolitical, a-religious, and only about sports. There is a clear difference between promoting a political agenda and simply trying to ensure a safe and open environment for all athletes. The NHL and NHLPA acknowledge this difference and the importance of the latter.

While the NHL and NHLPA likely did not intend to incite legal and political discussion by partnering with You Can Play, these debates are already underway. But what did they expect? The history of sports, coupled with the fact that no hockey player (or current professional football or basketball player) has come out publicly, illustrates the perceived stigma of homosexuality in the sports community. The partnership’s mission to educate and inform all athletes on the sensitive issues surrounding sexual orientation surely means the NHL is taking the lead as the most inclusive male major professional league. Now the question is whether the other major professional leagues follow suit. Will they sit around and wait to see how fans and the media react to the NHL’s public support of gay athletes? Perhaps the impact of the NHL’s alliance extends beyond the sports context and supports the equally pressing anti-bullying movement by showing the importance of creating open channels of communication for athletes (and students) to discuss the sensitive issue of sexual orientation. While there is much that remains uncertain, one thing we do know is that the NHL and the NHLPA are breaking down barriers and making hockey more inclusive.

Caitlin Buckstaff

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9 Responses to Breaking the Barrier

  1. John says:

    Great post, Caitlin. Like Matt mentioned above it is not entirely clear whether the NHL’s support for You Can Play is to truly advocate for gay rights. I certainly hope that is their true intent, but even if it is not it is a step in the right direction. Given the significant role that sports teams and athletes play in people’s lives small steps can make a big difference.

  2. Veronica says:

    Caitlin, what a timely post. Overall, I am happy that more major organizations, sports-based or not, are stepping out in support of equal rights. I think change is happening before our eyes and Jason Collins coming out will likely be a catalyst for other young athletes to feel comfortable being who they are and expressing that identity publicly. It will be interesting to see how these stories impact other areas of entertainment. Frank Ocean came out last year and I suspect that his openness will prompt other R&B singers and maybe even rappers to come out as well.

  3. Matt Ginther says:

    While we should applaud the sports leagues for coming around on this issue, I feel we may be going to far to ascribe the decision to an actual desire of the leagues to promote gay rights. The leagues have been a bastion of anti-gay rhetoric for as long as they have existed, and still are. Perhaps they sensed that the tide was turning, recognized their own history of tolerating and promoting homophobia, and made these changes with the goal of getting ahead of the issue.

    Does it matter if this is the case as long as they are changing their stance? I believe it absolutely does. There is a significant difference in impact between a sports league setting out to actually make a difference as opposed to giving the perception of making a difference. To cite this proposition we need only look at the side show in the NFL during breast cancer awareness month, when the NFL partners up with Komen to paint everything it can pink. It has been great marketing for the NFL, especially with their recent target of the female demographic, while doing very little for breast cancer research and treatment. In the case of breast cancer awareness and the Pink marketing campaign, it has been estimated that for every $100 purchased, the NFL receives $50 in direct profit (excluding the goodwill it receives and the increased viewership) and $2 goes towards research. It’s not to see where the NFL’s allegiances actually lie, and I am concerned that we may fall victim to the same oversight in regards to this issue when it comes to the leagues.

  4. Caitlin Buckstaff says:

    It has been interesting to observe how the public and other athletes have reacted to Jason Collins’ coming out on Twitter. With the various social media platforms available, players, fans, and even Bill Clinton have been able to tweet and post statuses about their support of not only Collins but also an LGBT sports environment. In a recent interview, Collins said, “I didn’t set out to be first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I am happy to start the conversation.” Even though Collins likely did not plan to be the face of this “conversation”, he has certainly assumed that role, already giving exclusive interviews to Good Morning America and posing on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. Between the NHL’s new partnership with You Can Play and the NBA’s Jason Collins coming out as the first openly gay major professional male athlete, it is an exciting time for the sports community. While like Raymond I do not expect many players to come out in the next few weeks, I am curious if more players will become vocal on LGBT issues. Will the NBA look into forming a partnership with You Can Play or another advocacy group in support of LGBT rights? As Andrew mentioned, the NFL voiced its opinion, but will the MLB take a stance? Although the “conversation” is just beginning, I am excited to see its impact on the sports community.

  5. Raymond Rufat says:

    Turns out your article is quite timely. The United States finally has an openly homosexual athlete in Jason Collins, who most recently played for the Washington Wizards of the NBA. It will be interesting to see what effect the NHL’s partnership has when combined with Jason Collins’s monumental news. I don’t expect a wave of athletes admitting their homosexuality, but at the very least it will show other athletes that they can do so without facing ridicule within their league. The NBA’s response from commissioner David Stern to players like Kobe Bryant has been exemplary. However, only time will tell if this welcoming attitude becomes the norm in American professional sports.

  6. Jonathan Hoffmann says:

    There seems to be a growing acceptance in sport of LGBT rights. This post makes clear that at least the NHL is willing to do make their support official. There is another more marked marked indication of this change. Last week, the WNBA’s number one draft pick, Brittney Griner announced she was gay. Noteworthy, there was a lack of media coverage. While there is a fine line between brushing something under the rug and not taking notice of the commonplace, I think it is an indication that the sports world is ready to support LGBT rights. Such a change in sports would do wonders for society at large.

  7. Danielle Barav says:

    This partnership appears to be another step in a growing movement of vocal support for LGBT rights. In this vein, the campaign to change facebook pictures to red equal signs in support of equal marriage rights also reflects changing public opinions. While these moves may not directly affect the Supreme Court’s decision, they may be significant in driving the momentum of public opinion. Thanks for writing about this!

  8. Kim Smith says:

    I don’t follow hockey, but this is really nice to see. I think it is great when various professional sports organizations take on such initiatives considering their popularity and ability to influence both the players and potentially fans.

  9. Andrew Solinger says:

    Very interesting post, Caitlin! If anything, this indicates that the NHL realizes the importance of non-discrimination and the role that sports franchises may play in expressing messages of inclusion. Recently, Robbie Rogers, a former midfielder on the American national soccer team, came out of the closet. While it gained a large amount of press, honestly, it shouldn’t be that newsworthy. Clearly there are currently players in major American sports leagues who are in the closet. Hopefully other sports leagues follow the NHL’s lead and become more vocal on issues of non-discrimination and equality. This past year several NFL players voiced strong opinions on the issue of same-sex marriage, gaining a tremendous amount of press. It should be no surprise that many athletes support strong views on many issues. Sports franchises may be afraid of alienating part of their fan base, however, if they get too far out in front of some of these social issues. Only time will tell…