I wanted to put a couple of thoughts I’ve been mulling over for the last few months down on paper while I have a chance to do so. They’ve largely been sparked by thinking about what I would ideally want to see come out of the You Can Play partnership games when we first heard of them, although some of my latter thoughts tie more directly into the information we got today about the YCP ambassadors. This is less a direct reaction and more a “while we’re on the subject…”
While I was at our local rink a few weeks ago, I got to thinking again about what I think has been missing—or at least appears to be an untackled approach—in what YCP have been doing in North America with respect to men’s hockey in particular. Mostly a few things I think would be helpful on multiple levels, for the players themselves, for the fans, and for rest of the people involved in the league in other capacities.
Rather than a lot of statements about how the NHL (and hockey in general) is totally ready for an out male professional hockey player, I think they could do a lot of good by taking a direct approach with what they’re doing to improve the environment. Stop just telling us that using slurs isn’t appropriate and start talking about what, specifically, has been done to get people to change their language and attitudes.
We hear about how players who speak up for YCP and do PSAs for them are great role models, which is fine for a first step, but I’d like to see more explicit allyship from more than the same one or two people—and from players who are still active in the NHL, as much as I appreciate a lot of what Andrew Ference and Ben Scrivens have done. Saying “Hockey is for everyone, you can play!” is one thing; seeing a role model say “I used to use those words without thinking about it, and now I understand why that’s wrong. This is what I have been doing to be better” would demonstrate a lot more commitment and could also help a lot more people than just the ones around NHL games and locker rooms.
It would mean so much more to me to see players or team spokespersons mention the concrete steps they were taking to make their locker room welcoming for non-straight players and/or personnel. There would naturally be different ideas and different challenges in different areas, and I’m sure some of these would be applicable—and usable—to people outside the NHL, too.
Being an ally is an action and a journey, not a label, and it seems like most of the NHL is still stuck on step one with it. It’s not that I think they’re insincere—although frankly, some of them may well be—it’s that if all you’re doing is saying the words, you’re not actually giving people much of a roadmap on what they can do to get better.
Giving people specific alternate options for if they want to insult someone or say something passionate in the heat of the moment without also being offensive is one that helps a lot with very minimal effort. Suggesting “instead, tell him he’s an asshole” is much more likely to help change behaviour than just telling someone to “just stop” saying x, y and z. To echo a conversation I have seen multiple times across twitter: I do not give a shit about players using swearwords on the ice. Could. Not. Care. Less. I *do* care about them saying offensive bullshit that dehumanises and demeans LGBT people.
I’d suspect there are a lot of other changes that may seem small which can be made and that would add up to a much more welcoming and inclusive whole.
For example, I recently caught a clip of an interview with Mike Babcock in which he spoke of “choosing the right spouse” as being important to help players be successful in all areas of their lives. I saw more than one person note his choice of language which didn’t assume a male hockey player would be married to a woman, and many of us appreciated that. Similarly, I would love to see those NHL teams who have the significant others of their players do charity work as a group—eg, the Blue Jackets’s ‘Lady Jackets’—rename them to reflect that those partners may not be female. If teams wait until the hypothetical point where this situation becomes a reality then it puts more pressure and attention on that player and their partner in terms of things changing for them in particular than would be the case if teams plan ahead and start being inclusive now.
In addition to that, having specific talking points that all parties are familiar with can also make it a lot easier for people who are shy, unused to speaking up or have less power to actually raise the fact that something said or done was inappropriate. Having a template for what to say or how to explain that it’s problematic is much less stressful than trying to figure out how to navigate the situation while hurt, scared or angry.
Some of this may well be going on behind the scenes, and if so I salute that effort, but without public discussion and acknowledgment of that, it’s hard to get the change in attitude to spread much further. I’ve heard far too much casual homophobia and transphobia in the stands at NHL games to buy the idea that things have improved dramatically since YCP launched, much as I’d like that to be the case.
To specifically reference the YCP ambassadors as announced today, I’d like to add a few additional thoughts. While I appreciate the sentiment and intent behind this, I think there are some aspects that have clearly evaded the people planning this and which need to be addressed.
Some of the choices for ambassadors are questionable at best.
Specifically, I would first point to the Canadiens’ Andrew Shaw, who was clearly caught on video (and suspended/fined for) using a homophobic slur in the playoffs last year. I have not seen anything from Shaw himself, the Canadiens (or the Hawks at the time) or YCP which would give me confidence he’s learned from this in any way other than “don’t get caught.” It once again comes off as LGBT people being encouraged to make the first step and trust someone on the assertion that “they’ve changed” without being first given much evidence to believe that. As my friend J most eloquently put it, “Your first visible attempt at redemption should not be a position that requires vulnerable queer people to trust you. Work harder.”
To tie back into my point above, it would be significantly more impressive both as a statement of personal growth and as an encouragement for other people to make the same changes to have Shaw make a statement that explicitly refers to his homphobic comment(s) and talks about how and why he’s changed his vocabulary and behaviour.
I’m also not particularly impressed by the inclusion of players who have been overt in their support of a presidential administration whose second in command is an avowed believer in conversion ‘therapy’ for LGBT youths, and who has directly caused significant hardships, suffering and deaths in the LGBT community of his home state. That hardly dovetails with a position where a player is expected to help and support an LGBT person.
Lastly, if players are being asked to put themselves in a position where they are expected to be an early point of support and or contact for players or personnel who may be questioning or on the LGBT spectrum, then I would really like to see some assurances about the help, support, and most importantly training that those players have been provided.
The most well-intentioned person in the world can still say or do the most incredibly unfortunate thing possible in a stressful or intense situation, especially if they’re not all that familiar with what it can be like to be a non-straight and/or non-cis person in our society, whether closeted or out. It’s setting those players up to fail if they’re not being provided resources and assistance to get an idea of what they can or should—and cannot and should not—do or say in the hypothetical situation where someone does go to them for help.
I would love to be able to appreciate the work the You Can Play does without these reservations, and I hope as February goes on and as the YCP nights are held across the league we will see some actions to allay the concerns that I and plenty of other people speaking up this week have about the current campaign.