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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.
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