March 5, 2012
By Adam Bink
The NHL hasn’t always been a welcoming environment for either fans or players. During last year’s playoffs, I wrote in this space about my experience as a fan in hostile territory watching a Sabres/Flyers game in Philly:
I had the privilege (and terrifying experience) of going to a Buffalo Sabres/Philadelphia Flyers game the other night in Philadelphia. Having been to an Eagles game and having several Philadelphia sports fans I can call friends, I knew the scene can be rather, well, unwelcoming for opposing fans. Nevertheless, me and two friends donned our Sabres gear and made the trek. I won’t go into all the details of how rough it was, but I will put it this way: the arena had to have security guards tail us when we went to the bathroom. My Sabres with our all-world goaltender Ryan Miller won in overtime, so it was all worth it, though.
The reason I’m writing is because it really was a case study of how far we have to go culturally. I and my two straight friends were called “fag” or “faggot” around two dozen times; male fans in our section would shout “Ryan Miller loves penis!” “Ryan Miller hit on me!” “Are you guys in a three-way relationship or what?” “I heard Buffalo has more fag bars than straight bars!” and other epithets along that general theme. This went on for about three hours or so. It was interesting because one fan also kept shouting “Go back to Canada, Buffalo fans! Canada sucks!” until one fellow Flyers fan turned to him to point out that he was from Canada, as were most of the players on the ice. We all got a good laugh at him, and he replied “darn, now I got no ammo left!” Apparently his “ammo” left was targeting gay people.
We let it roll off us, but during the second intermission one of the louder Philly fans sat down and put his hand on my shoulder to say “hey, it’s all in good fun… I would never do anything like what happened at that Dodgers game” (where a fan ended up in a medically-induced coma because of attacks). I wanted to turn to him and ask why he would slander gays with that kind of language if he wouldn’t do the same because someone were a different race, or a woman. I wanted to ask the Philly fans around me (several of whom quietly apologized to us for their fellow fans’ behavior) why they didn’t tell him to lay off the gays like they told him to lay off Canada.
I bet some of the fans screaming at us actually support making it illegal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation, probably support basic access to rights like hospital visitation, and maybe even marriage. But when it comes to singling out people, gays still make an easy target.
More recently, the Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds called Sean Avery of the NY Rangers a “fucking faggot,” without response or punishment from the NHL or the Philadelphia Flyers. Kobe Bryant did the same with swift action from the NBA.
A new project — the “You Can Play” Project, launched by the family of openly gay player Brendan Burke who tragically passed away in 2010 — aims to combat some of that, with players from around the league reiterating a welcome environment:
Players speaking to fans and other players is certainly the way to go. I have a longer piece to write about this someday, but the audience for the It Gets Better Project are victims and potential victims of bullying along with their allies– not the bullies themselves. There is no viral media project telling bullies to cut it out, using their role models as messengers. This might crack that code.
As I titled the post linked at the top, we have a long way to go to make cultural norms catch up with laws. Here’s hoping this is a start.