This past week, the National Hockey League took a huge step forward as they and the NHL’s Players Association teamed up with You Can Play Project, an organization dedicated to the fight against homophobia in sports.
Patrick Burke (@BurkieYCP), the son of former general manager Brian Burke, founded the You Can Play Project in March 2012 in memory of his younger brother Brendan who came out to his family in 2007 but died in a car accident three years later.
Since founding the project, the Burkes have teamed up with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ farm club (the AHL’s Toronto Marlies) with ads informing anyone who wants to play hockey that they can play regardless of their orientation.
While some may look at this as merely a wise public relations stunt by the NHL and the NHLPA, I see something far beyond that. Granted, after the league’s infamous third lockout under Commissioner Gary Bettman still relatively fresh in the minds of many, a move like this would do wonders for their image. But PR isn’t what this is about – not even close.
When you think about it, it really is prophetic that 42 opened in theatres this weekend. 66 years ago tomorrow, Jackie Robinson suited up for Brooklyn Dodgers breaking baseball’s colour barrier as the first black man to play Major League Baseball. Despite initial reticence from a number of teammates and a handful more opponents, Robinson made his mark on the game and took relentless abuse along the way. But the journey was worth it as Robinson opened the floodgates for several more black players to follow suit which including teammates Roy Campanella the following season and Don Newcombe in 1949. While the Dodgers were known to break the colour barrier, it was the Cleveland Indians who made history of their own as in 1948, Larry Doby and Satchel Paige became the first black players to win the World Series rings. Whether anyone liked it or not, a new age was born. Baseball became an inspiration if you will and nearly seven decades later, hockey is doing the same.
While it can be said that few know or even care what’s going on with the NHL for those who don’t follow the game, the announcement of the league’s partnership with You Can Play has certainly caught the attention of many including celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Clay Aiken who both emphatically champion the NHL’s new direction in addition to countless NHLers.
Personally, I love this. Admittedly, I was one of those who, during the lockout, said that I would boycott the NHL when and if it would return only to embrace them with open arms (not literally, of course) days later. Now that the NHL and the NHLPA have joined in the fight against homophobia, I don’t know if I can ever say a bad thing about them after having the fortitude to take a stand against an issue that, even in 2013, is sadly still a major issue in professional sports.
What was most discouraging, nay, maddening, for me was two months ago in the days leading up to the Super Bowl when Chris Culliver of the San Francisco 49ers made disparaging comments against gays in football shortly after four of his teammates participated in the 49ers’ video “It Gets Better” which champions ant-bullying. Of course, Chris Culliver’s comments shouldn’t put a black cloud over the NFL. After all, players like Chris Kluwe, Donte’ Stallworth and Brendon Ayanbadejo in addition to the four members of the 49ers who took part in the aforementioned anti-bullying video, there is substantial proof that for every ignorant athlete out there, the number is that much greater for those who are making it their mission to end homophobia once and for all.
In regards to Chris Culliver’s comments, the saddest part of all in my mind is that as a black athlete, he should realize that just a half-century ago, while it’s not justified, he would have had to deal with the same type of hatred that he inflicted on homosexuals in February given the colour of his skin. I guess two wrongs make a right – oh wait, they don’t.
I wish I could say that homophobia is gone forever and we never have to worry about it again but the sad reality is that’s just not possible. What is possible, however, is helping those who are ignorant enough to make disparaging comments and educate them. It may not be a walk in the park but hey, as the old adage goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
The NHL and the NHLPA have taken the negative of the lockout stigma and turned it into a significant positive as they come together with the You Can Play Project to teach kids that regardless of orientation, race, religion, whatever, that there are no barriers keeping them from doing what they love to do.
If we can work together to eliminate the prejudice Jackie Robinson had to face nearly 70 years ago or what NASCAR driver Tim Richmond had to face nearly 30 years earlier when he was diagnosed with AIDS, then we can slowly but surely end the prejudice against homophobia.
While other sports have come out and let their feelings against homophobia be known, hockey is the one sport which has thus far made the biggest (and boldest) move against the fight.
Sure, I’m proud to be a fan of the Los Angeles Kings but this news makes me especially proud to be a fan of hockey – no question about it.