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NHL, players join with You Can Play to fight homophobia in hockey

The league and the players' union sign a pact with the LGBT advocacy group to make inclusion the policy and offer education and outreach. It's a first for a major men's pro sports league.

April 12, 2013|Helene Elliott
  • Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players' Assn., says the NHL's decision to partner with the You Can Play project which fights homophobia and advocates for the inclusion of LGBT athletes in sports was "the right thing to do."
Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players' Assn., says the… (Louis Lanzano / Associated…)

Maybe it really is as simple as it sounds.

That for the NHL and its players, establishing a partnership with the You Can Play project — which fights homophobia and advocates for the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual athletes in sports — was born of fairness and logic and isn't really a big deal.

"In talking to the guys and all the rest of it, I think the basic feeling was this is the right thing to do, so we oughta go do it. And that's the motivation," Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players' Assn., said Thursday.

"You do it because it's the right thing to do."

It was. Yet, the agreement announced Thursday between the league, the union and You Can Play is a big deal and should be recognized as that.

It's the first time a major men's professional sports league has made inclusion its official policy and will back its words with deeds that include educational seminars for rookies and confidential outreach resources for players. When coaches like Rutgers' Mike Rice can sling homophobic slurs at players without being fired until ESPN airs a video of the tirades, it's exemplary for the NHL and its players to fight intolerance at every level.

"This isn't, 'OK, we'll tolerate a gay fan,' or 'We'll tolerate a gay player, we'll tolerate a gay coach.' We invite you. We'll welcome you into the hockey community," said Patrick Burke, who founded You Can Play just over a year ago in tribute to his brother, Brendan, who came out as gay while serving as the student manager of the hockey team at Miami University of Ohio and died in a car crash in 2010.

"We want you to be a part of this and to feel safe. It's really historic."

No player in the NHL or the other major professional men's sports leagues has come out as gay during his career, though some have come out after they retired. Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo recently told the Baltimore Sun as many as four NFL players were prepared to come out publicly, but later he said some hadn't decided if they would do so.

The NFL this week met with several advocacy groups and agreed to review its policies regarding discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation after three prospective draft picks said they had been asked questions related to their sexual orientation during the league's combine in February.

Burke, son of former Ducks general manager Brian Burke, said he's sure there are gay players in the NHL now. He based that on statistical analysis, not specific knowledge, because You Can Play considers conversations with players to be confidential.

"In an average year about 700 players play in the NHL," Burke said. "Take it all the way down and say 1% — the smallest number you could really have and still be statistically honest — even if 1% of the National Hockey League is gay, that would be seven gay players in any given year."

Making those players — and their teammates — feel comfortable in the locker room is a key issue.

"Our biggest education base tends to focus on language because we know what a locker room is like," Burke said. "I think I was 3 years old the first time I walked into an NHL locker room. You're going to joke around, you're going to make fun of each other. That's how athletes talk, and we don't want to change that. But what we need to establish is a line….

"What we say is, you can still make fun of each other. You can still give each other a hard time. That doesn't bother us. We just need to establish that a homophobic slur is anti-gay language and that's the line. Because for your teammates, whether they're openly gay or closeted or confused or just an ally, that type of language has a real effect on them."

The NHL and the players' union had worked for several months with You Can Play, which produced and aired several public service announcements last season. The NHL's current collective bargaining agreement, like the previous edition, includes a clause prohibiting discrimination against a player based on religion, race, color, national origin or sexual orientation, among other factors. Labor agreements covering the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball have similar clauses.

"We want anybody to feel comfortable being a part of our game and the NHL family, whether or not you've been a fan for 40 or 50 years or whether you're 7 years old and first learning how to skate," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday.

He accepts that the league might face a backlash for its stance.

"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," Bettman said. "We as a family — the NHL, the Players' Assn., the players, team personnel and our fans — overwhelmingly believe we're doing the right thing."

Asked to give perspective to the significance of Thursday's announcement, Fehr demurred. "I'll leave that to other people to try and judge," he said. "You don't look for compliments for doing the right thing. You don't get Brownie points just because you do what you should do."

There it is again: the right thing. As simple but as monumental as that.

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