On Monday in a preseason game against the New York Rangers, Wayne Simmonds was caught on camera yelling what was pretty obviously a homophobic slur at the Blueshirts’ pest extraordinaire, Sean Avery.
Simmonds was not suspended or otherwise punished for the incident (which he only halfheartedly denied) and the NHL asserted:
“Since there are conflicting accounts of what transpired on the ice, we have been unable to substantiate with the necessary degree of certainty what was said and by whom.”
The video of the incident seems to leave as little ambiguity as could be imagined from an audio-free clip. Simmonds shouts something very expressively at Avery, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks it’s anything other than the slur in question. It’s debatable to what extent the NHL should have punished the Philadelphia Flyer but it’s hard to see how they couldn’t reach a consensus on what was said.
The truth is, there’s a chance – probably a very good chance – that Simmonds’ outburst wasn’t the result of homophobia or bigotry but rather just an on-ice eruption of vitriol that is far from uncommon in the world of professional sports. Even at lower levels, college, and high school – the term “fag” or “faggot” is hardly foreign. While there are occasions where it’s used in its more hateful purpose, more commonly it’s a tool of general derision.
Trash-talking is part of the game and it’s highly unlikely that the League would ever be able to completely eliminate the harsh and occasionally very cruel words spoken in the heat of on-ice battles … but there needs to be some lines that cannot be crossed. This is still a professional environment and the league has the right and responsibility to protect its image and reputation by enforcing the elimination of the most unnecessary and hurtful language.
Still, Simmonds’ use of these words ultimately contributes to the oppressive culture that keeps gay hockey players living secretive lives in the closet. Afraid that they’ll lose ice time, their jobs, their friends and respect, homosexual athletes in professional sports feel unable to admit to their teammates and the world how they live their lives.
Even unintentionally, bandying around terms like “fag” only deepens gay athletes’ resolve to remain hidden. Google “Kevin Stevens Heckling” and you’ll be able to bear witness to one example of the acerbic language that (at least at one time, if less so now) was prevalent in the NHL (be aware – the uncensored version is extremely NSFW).
Former collegiate and professional hockey player, Justin Bourne, admitted in an article for USA Today in 2009:
“I did nothing but contribute to hockey’s culture of homophobia and prejudice against gays. I used gay slurs more times than I’d like to admit. Six months after I left my last professional locker room, I felt a twinge of regret, followed by a full-out, stomach punch of regret…”
Bourne felt – at the time – that since there were no homosexuals in the locker-room, there was no one to offend. Later, he realized that there was probably a decent chance his (and others’) insensitive words may have affected a closeted teammate and pushed them to remain so.
Despite the massive gains in other aspects of society, gay rights have a long way to go in the world of professional sport. The fact that not a single active athlete in one of the “Big Four” professional sports in North America has come out of the closet is indicative of that fact. According to a 2005 poll conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates for NBC, 78% of the public asserted it was OK for un-closeted gay athletes to participate in sports.
Unlike basketball, baseball and football, no NHL-level hockey player has ever come out of the closet. Their experiences are rarely happy. Many talk about the emotional stress and turmoil being closeted brought upon them.
Male-focused athletics in particular are having a tough time catching up to the rest of America. Whereas there is some modicum of acceptance in women’s sports (though this is far from universal), the need to retain the machismo and masculine appearance is too much for active athletes.
In an interview for his book “In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity”, sociologist Eric Anderson talked to a closeted NHL player (dubbed Aaron to conceal his identity):
“… [Aaron has to act] in strict accord with masculine ideals. He conforms to the norms of masculinity exhibited in the sport, including having sex with women, because he is afraid of being perceived out of step with the masculine expectations of the sport. While he often feels he would like to disclose his sexuality to his teammates, he fears losing the competitive edge in acquiring ice time.
Anderson Continues, “[Aaron] fears another kind of damage—the loss of respect if he were to come out. ‘If people found out I was gay, it would ruin everything,’”
Even the suggestion of homosexuality is enough to provoke a knee-jerk response from top athletes. Michael Vick and Mike Piazza are two major professional sports stars who found even modest inferences of possible homosexuality cause for immediate and significant response.
The NHL’s in a sad place when Sean Avery is leading the charge toward a more progressive culture. Avery, who famously mocked Dion Phaneuf for taking his “sloppy seconds” (in reference to former Avery and current-Phaneuf beau, Elisha Cuthbert) among other classy acts, has become an outspoken member of the gay-rights community. Notably, Avery received a six game suspension for those comments.
Like it or not, “fag” and “faggot” have wormed their ways into the lexicon of the day. Ask anyone who tries a hand at online gaming – those terms are used with greater frequency than personal pronouns. The internet is full of jerks using these and other offensive language to insult, offend and hurt. These words aren’t going to go away.
Most young men with experience in team sports will tell you (and I’ve seen it first-hand at the Collegiate and High School levels myself) that these hateful terms are nearly ubiquitous parts of the dialogue in men’s athletics. It’s an uphill battle (if a worthy one) to try to eliminate the usage of homophobic slurs from the vocabulary of athletes.
This is not to say that these words have a place in sport – they absolutely don’t – but the reaction in the media to Simmonds’ outburst is incommensurate with the magnitude of the incident. Simmonds is well deserving of some ridicule for his use of homophobic slurs, and probably a stern warning/modest punishment from the NHL.
More importantly however, the NHL needs to lead the way for North American professional sports by promoting an open dialogue on alternative lifestyles and doing all it can to encourage any gay members of its fraternity to come out of the closet and live their lives openly. The NHL needs to enforce codes of conduct that not only protect their players physically – but mentally and emotionally as well.
If the U.S. military can at long last allow homosexuals to serve openly, why can’t the NHL?
Bob is a Boston Bruins Correspondent for The Hockey Writers. He lives in the Boston Metro Area with his wife, Amanda and their five-year-old son, Cormac.