Will Michael Sam’s Announcement Affect Hockey?

On 23 February 2013 professional soccer player Robbie Rodgers wrote on his blog,

I’m a soccer player, I’m Christian, and I’m gay.

On 6 May 2013 professional basketball player Jason Collins told SI,

I’m a 34 year old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.

And now most recently, Missouri All-American collegiate football player Michael Sam told ESPN and the New York Times,

I am an openly proud gay man [and] I want to be a football player in the NFL.

As a member of the human race, I couldn’t be more proud.

As a hockey fan, I’m mildly disappointed. After all, it was a hockey player—Brendan Burke—who unlatched the door. It was a hockey family—Brendan’s father Brian and his brother Patrick—who began twisting the door handle.

Not-so-quietly, I wanted it to be a hockey player who kicked in the door. Granted, the door has not yet been kicked in, but it’s getting there. Yet while the well-known You Can Play project (YCP), co-founded by Patrick Burke, may have had its origins in hockey, it has always had its sights on all sports.

And to paraphrase YCP, if Sam can play, he can play. And if you watch SEC football you know damn well the young man can play.

….

Now, will Michael Sam’s announcement affect hockey? I sure hope so.

As joyous and historic as Michael Sam’s announcement is, it’s difficult to think that by now it will have reached the ears of every professional hockey player in the world, and this means that it will have reached the small percentage of those players who are gay and who have that secret to keep. Maybe Sam’s announcement, coupled with the support of teammates, family and friends, YCP, and the entire hockey community, will convince a player that it’s not a secret worth hiding.

After all, this isn’t about sex, or even sports. This is about love. It’s about lifelong bonds. About personal happiness. The kind of satisfaction that can only be found by finding the right person to share your life with. We’re beginning to see more and more retired athletes coming out, which is great, but there is simply no reason why a person should hide that information for the duration of his playing career. If no one else must hide his sexual orientation, then neither should the gay hockey player.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times put the estimate of gay men among the general population at about five percent. Taking a random NHL team’s list of roster and non-roster players, I count 51, meaning that roughly 2-3 players on each team, on average, are likely gay. That’s 60-90 players league-wide who live in what must be overwhelming fear of being found out. I wouldn’t wish that torment on the worst chirper or the dirtiest player in hockey.

When the first pro hockey player does come out, I expect the cameras and Twitter feeds to be buzzing. Maybe there will be one or two fans who have derogatory words for that player, and those cameras and feeds will capture them and memorialize their bigotry and ignorance for all of history to see, like the angry white people in Arkansas who can be seen in black and white photos screaming at the students who attended school in Little Rock  following desegregation. As a white person and as a human being, those angry people embarrass me. Education, athletics, speech, assembly– these are basics afforded us all in a free society.

If we can play, if we want to play, we should play.

So haters, if you must, prepare to have your hatred immortalized so history can bear witness.

….

Contrary to perception, it is not a progressive attitude to say, “Who cares if Michael Sam is gay? Why should that matter? Why all this attention?” Rather, it is extraordinarily short-sighted. Life presents us with some issues the time scales of which we must value on calendars that extend beyond our own lifetimes. Of course Sam’s sexuality is immaterial with regard to his athletic performance, but it is not immaterial with regard to the society and culture in which he plays, and it never will be. So long as dogmas persist that demonize and in some cases criminalize sexuality, it is irresponsible to say “Who cares?” because maybe today fewer people care than they would have two decades ago, but life is nothing if not cyclical, and trying to be cavalier about Sam’s announcement makes it easier for those less tolerant days to make a comeback.

In other words, we should care about Michael Sam’s sexuality just like we should care about the sexuality of hockey players— insomuch as we care enough to respect it as an aspect of their private lives that is actively none of our business.

Ross Bonander
Ross Bonander is a freelance health writer and quotations editor. He is the editor of 12 quotation collections, including Hockey Talk, a collection of memorable hockey quotes, as well as collections focusing on Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy and Steve Yzerman. He also writes extensively about blood cancers and other health issues. His homepage is RossBonander.com.
Ross Bonander

4 Comments

  1. Nicely done, Ross.

  2. Excellent and timely piece. I just watched the excellent movie “42″ last night about Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and this whole far too long process reminds me so much of that. Fortunately with the change of generations this “stigma” is finally becoming a thing of the past as is thankfully being proven by the increasing state-by-state acceptance of marriage equality, the repeal of DADT, the DOJ declining to defend or enforce DOMA, the courage of Brendan Burke, his brother Patrick, and Brian my friend of over 35 years, and of course the “You Can Play” campaign among other things.

    I hope this quote from “42″ will guide the entrenched homophobic culture in pro sports in the years to come. It is what Harrison Ford says as Branch Rickey to Jackie Robinson when he asks Rickey why he brought him to the Dodgers: “I love this game. I love baseball. I’ve given my whole life to it. Forty odd years ago I was a player-coach at Ohio Wesleyan University. We had a Negro catcher, best hitter on the team. Charlie Thomas, fine young man. I saw him laid low, broken, because of the color of his skin and I didn’t do enough to help him. I told myself that I did but I didn’t. There was something unfair at the heart of the game I loved, and I ignored it. But a time came that I could no longer do that. You let me love baseball again. Thank you Jackie.”

  3. Beautiful piece, Ross.

    My intuition tells me that the NHL would be the league most welcoming of an openly gay player. The “You Can Play” campaign is evidence for this. Also, The league is comprised of players from Canada, Sweden, Finland, etc.; all VERY socially liberal countries. Much more socially liberal than ours.

    It’s probably naive of me to believe its a coincidence that no one in the NHL has come out yet. But who knows. Anyway, again, well done. Enjoyed it.

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