Simmonds’ Slur Incident Indicative of Hockey’s Deeper Struggle

Wayne Simmonds Kings
(Icon SMI)

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.

Sean Avery
Sean Avery isn't exactly the poster boy for sensitivity and understanding. (Icon SMI)

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?




5 thoughts on “Simmonds’ Slur Incident Indicative of Hockey’s Deeper Struggle”

  1. Thanks so much for writing this! Isn’t it bizarre when Sean Avery is leading the way toward more decent behaviour?? Maybe he’s done some thinking following some of the ways he himself has behaved in the past. Maybe it’s going to take some of the tough guys to get the point across: that being gay neither diminishes your toughness nor has to be despised by anyone from the tough guys on up.

    Being in Toronto, one of the things I really appreciate about Brian Burke (even if I gnash my teeth at him over other things) is his willingness to speak out, and even to march in the Pride parade. We need more people in the league like him and — I still chuckle — Sean Avery.

    Again, thanks for this!

  2. Bob, you hit on so many important points that need to be addressed.

    The efforts to curtail homophobic bullying in schools and youth activities has been heartening to see. However, as long as it is allowed to continue unchecked at the top, it will diminish the efficacy of well-intentioned initiatives at the youth level.

    I feel for Simmonds. I haven’t been on the ground to know first-hand what has been said specifically to him, but having heard the language that takes place on both sides of the glass, I am pretty sure that most of the trash-talking that is thrown his way is far more vicious than anything directed at white players. Being exposed to bullying over time can desensitise anyone to the point that they might slip into the same behaviour. In no way does it excuse his actions towards Avery, but it can explain some of it.

    The NHL’s “Hockey is for everybody!” campaign has had a positive impact for both players and fans of colour. For the fans, it broadens their idea of who can play hockey. For active players, it gives them a chance to be heard and to assert that there’s room for everyone on the ice. Anyone who saw their hometown players response to meeting Willie O’Ree a few years ago understands how important this initiative really is.

    The thing that holds people back is fear. People are afraid that allowing for differences somehow diminishes the validity of how they identify themselves, whether those particular aspects are chosen or inherent. The easy way has been to insist on a degree of situational, usually professional homogeniety in the interest of getting along. The denial of self might be lucrative for a while, but it eats away at the spirit and ultimately puts a damper on the genius that could be loosed on any undertaking, whether it’s sports, the arts, the sciences or anything else. Anyone who does not self-identify as part of the majority culture understands this only too well.

    Letting go of that fear means not just tolerating, but accepting that diversity starts at the moment you see the person next to you. There are people who would argue that all of this is personal ans has no place in the public arena. I disagree.

    From personal anecdotal experience, I grew up in a household that valued the arts and sciences and sports fairly equally. I saw the difference in the way my gay and lesbian friends were treated as we moved through different arenas of work and play. I saw their contributions and accomplishments diminished, sometimes completely dismissed because they were different. In the town where I got my anth degree, a pediatric oncologist, a brilliant woman who has saved the lives of goodness knows how many children in Kentucky, was asked to come alone to her hospital’s fund-raising gala because people might be offended by the presence of her partner. Her partner, by the way, is an accomplished PhD who worked and sacrificed to get her education and made inroads into seeing that her field was financially sustainable and wide enough for the young people coming through her program to find the kind of jobs they had actually trained for.

    If you’re straight, you’ve heard, I’ve heard, we’ve all heard that it isn’t our fight. Why not? Being comfortable and safe in being accepted because our sexual orientation is “correct” or whatever the term is, is not an excuse. Some of my social science colleagues still hold by the statistic that at least one in ten people are homosexual. There’s a good chance that someone who taught you what you know and value, someone who took care of you, someone who befriended you, someone gave you a much needed pep-talk, someone who works next to you is gay. I’m selfish enough that I don’t want to miss out on what that ten percent has to offer humanity. The hockey community -ALL of the hockey community- needs to step up and follow Sean Avery’s example*. The contributions on the ice would be noticeable, the impact from a humanistic standpoint would be profound.

    *I know…I know…the paradigms have shifted. Shut up. I love the guy and he has great taste in handbags.

    • Thanks for the response, Jas.

      It’s an issue with no quick or easy solution (aside from a few high-caliber players coming out). On the ground-level, we need to try our damnedest to ensure children are brought up in an environment that espouses the benefits of acceptance or at least tolerance. Too many in our society teach children to fear and loathe the great evil “other” (regardless if that other represents race, creed, orientation, etc.) and it’s almost impossible to shake the trappings of prejudice and fear when they’ve been infused into you at such a young age.

      It’s going to be hard to disengage homophobia from sport but particularly boy’s/men’s sport – simply because so much of the subculture centers on the elevation of masculine ideals: Strength, Aggression, Bravado. Homosexuality has been so stereotyped and pigeon-holed to be the antithesis of those ideals that it will take an enormous effort to bridge the gap. Adding to this are the typical self-conscious locker room fears and you have a situation with more problems and solutions.

      That’s not to say there’s no hope. The giant leaps forward the Queer movement has made in the past decade are promising. The majority of athletes (and Americans) seem to have little to no outward problem with homosexuals. We’re making strides (which is little comfort to those dealing with these bad circumstances now…) but it’s no easy task to change a culture which has for generations relegated *alternative* sexualities to the shadows. It might take a generation or more to see the fruits of the struggle.

      For the record, I do feel bad for Simmonds. His actions deserve rebuking but it’s a systemic problem that he and others like Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah of the NBA (who each were caught using those slurs in games), have become poster-boys of.

      I’m just crossing my fingers that a big name in North American sports comes out in the next decade – someone admired, someone whose face is plastered across advertisements from Boston to San Francisco. The courage of that someone could change the lives of millions for the better.

      • The weird thing is the “non-masculine” stereotype. Every time I hear that that’s the primary view of homosexuals, I think, “All those manly men apparently have no idea just how many people working out at the gym with them are gay.” Sure, the “effeminate” stereotype applies to some people, but among all the gay people I know, they are definitely a minority. So the whole basis of the attitude that leads to the slurs no longer holds in the first place — if it ever really did.

  3. Great piece. I have never been affected by this directly in my playing days (or at least I don’t think I did). But, it is important that athletes especially are more aware of their teammates and colleagues. You play for the guy next to you after all.

Comments are closed.