The National Hockey League and the NHL Players’ Association are taking proactive steps to embrace the equality of all people, whatever their sexual orientation. The league announced that it would partner with You Can Play, an advocacy group for gay athletes, to combat homophobia in sports.
The NHL, which has 30 teams in the U.S. and Canada, will use the partnership to educate incoming players about LGBT issues. The league will also utilize You Can Play as a resource for players with questions about sexuality.
“Our motto is ‘Hockey Is For Everyone,’ and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. “While we believe that our actions in the past have shown our support for the LGBT community, we are delighted to reaffirm through this joint venture with the NHL Players’ Association that the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands.”
At a time when LGBT rights are increasingly becoming viewed as mainstream, men’s athletics has been one of the last bastions of homophobia. While there are several female professional athletes who are openly lesbian, and while several male athletes have come out after retiring, none have done so during their playing career in any of North America’s four major sports.
This is not surprising, perhaps; homophobia has long had a place in sports. Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice was recently fired for shouting anti-gay epithets at his players, among other abuse — but only after video was released to the media. In an environment where a coach can feel comfortable using homosexuality as a cudgel, it’s no wonder few players have stepped forward.
That may soon change, however. As many as four active NFL players are reportedly considering coming out, perhaps as a group. As leagues embrace equality as not just something to strive for, but an affirmative value, it will become easier for players to do so.
You Can Play founder Patrick Burke, himself a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, said that the new partnership would support any player who chose to openly announce his sexuality.
“We’re ready to do whatever that player wants,” Burke told Rolling Stone. “If he wants to do a thousand interviews and march in pride parades, we’re equipped to handle that. And if he wants us to pass-block for him so he never has to do another interview in his life, we’re equipped to handle that too.”
The NHL’s move is another step forward toward true equality for LGBT individuals. While there is still a long way to go until all sports are truly egalitarian, the move is a bold statement in favor of equality — and puts pressure on basketball, baseball and football to follow suit.