SBD/April 12, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NHL, NHLPA Partner With You Can Play To Fight Homophobia; Will Other Leagues Follow?

The NHL and NHLPA on Thursday announced an official partnership with the You Can Play Project, a year-old advocacy organization co-founded by Flyers scout Patrick Burke that seeks to "ensure equality, respect and safety for athletes without regard to sexual orientation," according to Pat Leonard of the N.Y. DAILY NEWS. The NHL and NHLPA have been "unofficial partners of You Can Play since its founding" in March '12. MLS "joined on shortly after." Most notably, athletes have "filmed public service announcements voicing support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community." Thursday’s formal announcement means the NHL and NHLPA are "committing to education and training for teams, players, media and fans, including more public service announcements, seminars at the NHL’s annual rookie symposium, and the incorporation of the project into the league’s behavioral health program, enabling players to confidentially seek counseling or simply ask questions regarding matters of sexual orientation." Outsports.com co-Founder Cyd Zeigler said, "The fact they would come together and jointly be a part of this movement to end homophobia shows how seriously they’re taking this issue and how important ending homophobia is to the sport." Zeigler called the official partnership with the NHL "an important step." He added that the model of teaming with Burke's organization "makes sense based on his origins within the hockey family," though other pro leagues "don’t have to follow the same model as long as they make efforts in the same spirit." Leonard notes the NHL "hasn’t always come off as the most tolerant or progressive league." As recently as December, former NHLer Sean Avery criticized Commissioner Gary Bettman "for his inability to crack down on gay slurs made by players" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 4/12).

PAVING THE WAY: In L.A., Helene Elliott writes the partnership is "a big deal and should be recognized as that." NHLPA Exec Dir Donald Fehr said, "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. You do it because it's the right thing to do." Bettman "accepts that the league might face a backlash for its stance." He said, "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. We as a family -- the NHL, the Players' Assn., the players, team personnel and our fans -- overwhelmingly believe we're doing the right thing" (L.A. TIMES, 4/12). Burke said, "What we're doing is setting the blueprint now. Other leagues are talking to different groups, including us, and trying to figure out the way that they want to go" (CP, 4/11). The NATIONAL POST's Bruce Arthur notes You Can Play already had a "significant presence in the NHL, with over 60 players in its PSAs. But now it is "part of the playbook and that's progress." The NHL is "far ahead of the curve on LGBT issues now, miles ahead of other sports leagues and this is the formal proof." Arthur: "It feels radical, but it won't in five years. It might not in two. Society is moving and sports will move with it, and the NHL is far ahead of the field" (NATIONAL POST, 4/12).

BUILDING A COMFORT LEVEL: In N.Y., Klein & Battista note with "growing expectations in recent weeks that a gay male athlete in one of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States will soon come out publicly for the first time, the leagues have begun exploring ways to accommodate and respond to such a landmark announcement." The NHL announced what "appeared to be the most comprehensive measure by a major men's league in support of gay athletes," while the NFL is "working with gay advocacy groups to smooth the way for acceptance." Burke said, "We have players from around the world, and a lot of those players are from countries that are seen as more progressive on LGBT issues. So I don't think it's unreasonable or strange to think that the NHL and NHLPA are driving this, in part because our players tend to be more comfortable with this issue" (N.Y. TIMES, 4/12). But in Jacksonville, Justin Barney wrote under the header, "Don't Look For NFL Players To Come Out Anytime Soon." There is "still so much of a stigma about the first openly gay NFL player that I'm not too confident it's going to happen in the time frame that we've heard in the past few weeks." Barney: "Why the holdup? The same reason that we haven't seen a player come out until after their playing days were done. Fear. Negative reaction. Backlash" (JACKSONVILLE.com, 4/11).
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