The search for tolerance in pro sports

If you were to guess which major professional sport would be the first to actively promote tolerance, ice hockey would probably be your last guess.

The most dysfunctional of all of the American leagues, the National Hockey League has barely been able to go a few years without a lockout and ownership is almost always at odds with the Player’s Association.

Yet, when the NHL and the NHLPA officially announced a partnership with the “You Can Play Project” to formally commit to eliminating homophobia, it wasn’t much of a surprise.

Graphic by Lauren Lukacsko/Old Gold & Black

Graphic by Lauren Lukacsko/Old Gold & Black

The past year has seen a number of anti-gay incidents in American sports. First, Major League Baseball pitcher Yunel Escobar was suspended for three games in 2012 for wearing eye black with offensive slurs in Spanish.

Then, Marc Burch, a defender for the Seattle Sounders in Major League Soccer, sat out three games, including a playoff match, after yelling a homophobic slur during the game.

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made negative headlines on his way to the Super Bowl after stating that gay players would not be welcome on his football team. An off-the-court incident in late 2012 saw NBA player Amare Stoudemire send foul language and slurs to a fan on Twitter. Examining the 2012-13 sporting seasons would create the appearance that the world wasn’t ready for an openly gay active athlete.

The hockey world, however, thought differently, thanks to You Can Play.

Founded in March 2011, the You Can Play Project was established in honor of Brendan Burke, an openly gay student-manager for the Miami University hockey team who died in a car crash in 2010.

Burke had started the conversation about being gay and an athlete, and his older brother Patrick wanted to ensure that Burke’s message wouldn’t go unheard.

The Burke family is well-known in the hockey world, with Patrick as a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and Brian, the father, recently joining the Anaheim Ducks in a consulting role after serving as the general manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Additionally, several of Brendan’s teammates from Miami, including San Jose Shark Tommy Wingels and Phoenix Coyote Andy Miele, took the unprecedented step of aligning themselves with the organization as rookies, risking their chances in the league to stand by an issue that mean something.

Their personal ties to the sport helped spread Burke’s message about equality for all athletes: if you can play, regardless of sexual orientation or any other factor, you can play. That message, while simple, has had a powerful effect on the world of athletics.

What YCP is promoting isn’t about gay marriage or any other political issue; instead, the focus is on supporting every player in the locker room and on the field, without letting sexual orientation become a roadblock. Religion and politics don’t play a role in this issue, according to You Can Play, because it’s about the teammate sitting next to you on the bench and nothing else. If a player can help you win, should his sexuality really matter?

The You Can Play Project might have started with hockey, but it certainly hasn’t stopped there. Teams from Major League Soccer, Major League Lacrosse and universities across the country have all joined in to show their support for the organization.

YCP was originally founded with an eight-year plan, which is the time it would take for a gay athlete to start high school, graduate college and join a professional team where his or her sexuality wouldn’t be an issue. Yet just a month after the organization celebrated its first anniversary, YCP took a leap forward by officially partnering with the NHL and NHLPA.

That commitment on behalf of the NHL elevates the issue of tolerance to a high level of importance — and subsequently places pressure on the rest of the major sports leagues. If the NHL supports the equal treatment of all athletes regardless of sexual orientation, then the other leagues look stuck in the past.

As our nation is slowly becoming more tolerant, our sports, which represent the last bastion of masculinity and physicality, must adapt as well.

This first step might seem small but its’ symbolic meaning shows that this change is happening on and off the court. It’s not just the young athletes who are fighting for equality either; when a player like Wingels walks into the locker room and explains the importance of not using homophobic language, the veterans listen and actively make changes.

Acceptance of gay athletes isn’t a fringe issue anymore, but is becoming of mainstream importance and this message is being well-received in all levels of sport, from the pros all the way down to the juniors.

This isn’t to say that homophobic slurs have been eradicated, but that there are fewer offensive comments and athletes who say such things are quickly made aware of the consequences of their words. It is clear that YPC’s message is being received, and received positively.

The day after the NHL’s announcement, the league’s headquarters stated they had only heard four negative remarks; that progress is something to be celebrated.

So what does this mean for Wake Forest?

There’s no public pressure for any school or organization to support the cause, and given Wake’s religious history and lack of hockey program, joining with You Can Play might not seem like the most natural fit. Whether or not Wake Forest ever officially supports You Can Play, the university has always supported the need to promote tolerance — after all, that’s what Pro Humanitiate is all about.

By getting the word out about the consequences of homophobic language, positive changes can be made. If nothing develops between You Can Play and Wake Forest, the knowledge alone of the issue can be powerful and tolerance for all can be achieved.