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Or can you? The dogged persistence of homophobia in hockey

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Brian Burke marches with PFLAG during the Pride Parade in Toronto. (Photo: James Hamilton.)

July 1 was a serendipitous date for Canadian sportswriters eager to reinforce heterosexual discipline in professional hockey.  The coincidental timing of Canada Day, the Toronto Pride Parade and the NHL’s "UFA Day" (more on this below) offered a perfect excuse to lambaste Brian Burke -- one of the handful of hockey personalities who tries to take a meaningful stand against homophobia -- for caring too much about homophobia.  Sadly, most of the Canadian media seized that opportunity, reinforcing the hyper-masculine culture in which hockey is mired.

Those familiar with the story will know that Burke, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ GM, became an anti-homophobia activist when his son Brendan, a talented young hockey player, publicly came out as gay in 2009.  Burke’s activism was reinforced when Brendan was killed in a tragic car accident a year later, and while the NHL community paid due respect to the passing of the son of a well-respected hockey figure, there remains a deep-rooted discomfort in hockey circles about the prospect of alternative sexual identities.

And that’s putting it kindly.  The tone of hockey culture is still set by those who adhere to a version of ‘manhood’ that belongs in the 1920s; indeed, a primary figurehead for that position is the juvenile and obnoxious Don Cherry, who was once a good friend of Brian Burke’s but who is now his very public and outspoken critic.  Cherry, inexplicably one of Canada’s most well-known personalities, has established himself as a figure of the extreme-right, using his Hockey Night in Canada pulpit to promote a hyper-violent brand of hockey despite growing uproar -- from fans and players alike -- about the alarming levels of career-ending injuries and the long-term effects of repeated concussions.  When former NHL fighters attributed depression and alcoholism to their careers as fighters, Cherry called them "pukes" and "turncoats" in one of his weekly televised bullying sessions.  He simultaneously uses his quasi-celebrity status to promote racist slander against Indigenous people, foster patriotic discipline in support of Canada’s occupation of Afghanistan and the U.S. war in Iraq, to reinforce absurd and xenophobic perceptions of European-born players, and to perform a blustering farce of what makes a "real man," which necessarily includes disparaging women and men who don’t perform an aggressive enough version of masculinity, whom he calls "sweethearts."

 Steve Rennie.)

Don Cherry in one of his many highly-publicized trips to Afghanistan. (Photo: Steve Rennie.)

It would be tempting to believe that Don Cherry has become such a caricature of himself that he is no longer relevant.  However, his influence is still powerful and is reflected in the emergence of younger TV personalities like Mike Milbury who mimic his routine, in the newspapers that happily parrot his positions, and -- most worryingly -- in the rinks around the country where young hockey players carve out their own identities as hockey players in a homophobic culture.  During the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, CBC’s cameras repeatedly focused on a fan wearing a t-shirt that read: "Sedin Sisters – Two Girls No Cup," a pornographic and degrading reference to Vancouver Canucks’ star players Henrik and Daniel Sedin, twin brothers who have been the subject of homophobic taunts throughout their careers.  No one in the CBC broadcast team mentioned the t-shirt, as offensive to women as it was to LGBT people and the Sedins themselves, though it was displayed prominently during the telecast.  This amounted to tacit approval of its message, then, from the publicly funded national broadcaster that routinely pats itself on the back for its supposed liberalism.

So it is no coincidence that Cherry and his retinue, for whom homophobia and sexism are lauded as part of what it means to be a "real man in man’s game," lost their taste for Brian Burke the moment he became even marginally supportive of LGBT initiatives.  Indeed, Cherry has been attacking Brian Burke at every opportunity over the past few years, and typically gets more aggressive at precisely the moments that Burke’s stance against homophobia gets any good press.

So-called ‘UFA day’

Flash forward to July 1, 2012.  The NHL season is over, the Stanley Cup was awarded over a month ago, and the league is on hiatus until the autumn.  But the press always needs to create new spectacles to draw in viewers and readers, so on July 1 it constructs a major fuss around a relatively unimportant event: the date that unrestricted free agent players can sign new contracts with any team that makes an offer.  Few players are actually signed on this day, and typically there are only one or two b-list stars available.  This year, the big names were Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.  Hockey people hold due respect for the abilities of both, but they wouldn’t be considered franchise players unless perhaps your franchise was the Winnipeg Jets (sigh.)  They are the hockey equivalents of Mary Steenburgen or John C. McGinley -- you don’t know their names, but you’d know their faces.

And these are the "big fish" of so-called UFA Day.  It is mostly a day of minor tinkering, peppered with the occasional flashy signing of a mid-level player to a big contract that they can’t live up to.  So the fact that Brian Burke didn’t make any significant moves on this day should have passed without much notice.  In fact, given some of his past errors on UFA Day, there ought to have been some relief; why repeat the mistake of throwing $4.5 million at the perpetually underachieving Mike Komisarek?

But Brian Burke’s lack of free agent activity on July 1 this year drew a sharp and noticeable reaction, largely because his absence from the office was marked by his presence at the Toronto Pride Parade.  Most of the commentaries that reported on the Leafs’ behaviour at the non-event of UFA Day referenced Burke’s presence at Pride, and it became another opportunity to discipline him for his ongoing commitment to becoming an LGBT ally.  "Brian Burke took part in Toronto’s lavish Pride Parade…" noted Kevin McGran in the Toronto Star, "on a day when ex-Leafs were in incredible demand and teams all around them were incredibly busy… the Toronto Maple Leafs -- incredibly -- did little."

 James Hamilton.)

Brian Burke marches with PFLAG during the Pride Parade in Toronto. (Photo: James Hamilton.)

It’s worth noting the subtle dig at how "lavish" the parade was, and how "incredible" it was that the Leafs did nothing.  Meanwhile, reporters lapped up rumours that Brian Burke was about to be fired, while repeatedly offering patronizing applause to his decision "to put his values before his job," a backhanded compliment since the obvious subtext is that he ought to be putting hockey first.  With most of these articles posted on the internet, it is easy enough for a writer to seem to say the right things, while subtly leading on those who would submit readers’ comments that express the sharp homophobic edge the writers affect to blunt.

One can’t help but wonder whether there would be any controversy if Burke had made the same decisions on UFA Day from his office, or from a Canada Day event, or the golf course, or his trophy-adorned den, or some other masculinity-reinforcing space.  Naturally, most of the Canadian media are sure to deny that the Pride Parade has anything to do with their critique, though it is this same media that can’t stop bringing it up.  Sportsnet writer Mark Spector insists -- rather protesting too much, methinks -- "spend July 1 wherever you please, Brian.  Just get more good players so you can win more games."  But it is Spector himself who is both raising the matter of the Pride Parade and playing along with the idea that paying Zach Parise $98 million (that’s what the Minnesota Wild eventually paid) was going to make the Maple Leafs a winner, otherwise it wouldn’t matter where Brian Burke spent July 1.  By asserting that July 1 was the day Burke could have made the Leafs a contender, Spector paves the way for a critique of his participation in Pride without seeming like a bigot.

A case study in Canadian homophobia

But it was the supposedly more liberal of Canada’s national newspapers, The Globe and Mail, which took first prize for coded homophobia this time around.  Last Friday, it ran a piece on Brian Burke’s "absence" from UFA Day written by Bruce Dowbiggin.  Like others, the article opens by exaggerating the importance of UFA Day and the "controversy" of Burke’s inactivity, framing it as a grave dereliction of his duty to the Maple Leafs’ hockey team.  Dowbiggin briefly references Brendan Burke’s death and Brian’s commitment to honouring his son’s passing at the Pride Parade, but quickly seizes upon an opportunity to discipline him for it:

"This was not the only chance to honour his son, however. Burke marched in the Toronto Pride Parade last year, and he can march in next year’s parade when the dates don’t conflict. Some have suggested attending another LGBT event for this one year as his tribute to his son. One that would allow him to fulfill his professional duties."

Presumably, one "gay event" per year is Dowbiggin’s stipulated limit.  That a writer at the Globe feels entitled to tell someone how -- and how much -- they should honour the memory of their tragically deceased son is surely food for thought.  There is no similar restriction set on hockey personalities’ interactions with the Canadian military -- in fact, Burke was in Afghanistan with the troops last July 1 and it passed with little mention.  Are we to assume that Burke would be similarly punished had his July 1 activism been attending a cancer research fundraiser or a campaign meeting for Mothers Against Drunk Driving?

There is no shortage of men and sticks in a sampling of Bruce Dowbiggin’s back catalogue.

There is no shortage of men and sticks in a sampling of Bruce Dowbiggin’s back catalogue.

But Dowbiggin isn’t finished.  He offers a few tepid congratulations to Burke for having a social conscience, again framed so that the reader understands that Dowbiggin isn’t homophobic himself -- he’s all for free speech and equality and whatever else the hippies want, just so long as it doesn’t interfere with what really matters.

"Maybe MLSE [the Leafs’ ownership group] likes their president being a highly visible social conscience in the entire community," he surmises.  "Good on them.  On the flip side, there are also many whose livelihoods at MLSE depend on Burke’s leadership and experience on this key day."

Really?  If this is about owners’ profits, let’s be clear; the Toronto Maple Leafs is the most profitable franchise in the NHL by a landslide, worth some $521 million in 2011, according to Forbes Magazine.  Cutting through the smokescreen, then, what we have here is a sarcastic pat on the back to the hockey man gone soft (so to speak) and an appeal to how hard it is to "speak plainly" as a straight man who just wants to see his team succeed.  It’s the usual refuge for privileged people who fear anything that threatens their privilege -- say the right thing, in a way that makes it obvious that you’re saying it under duress from the supposedly all-powerful liberal machine that puts the unfortunate straight man in an uncomfortable straightjacket of "political correctness."

But this feeble pretence of martyrdom falls flat as Dowbiggin prominently displays his own bigotry, concluding with a homophobic gem that -- unintentionally -- demonstrates why Brian Burke’s endorsement of the Pride Parade is actually very significant and is only a small step towards addressing the overwhelming problem of homophobia in hockey:

"The issue isn’t whether the parade was a noble cause -- it is -- but rather Burke’s obligation on that particular day to serve his organization and the players of the Maple Leafs. Duty may seem an old-fashioned concept in the age of LGBT, but it, too, can have redeeming value."

Let’s unpack that last line.  "Duty may seem an old-fashioned concept in the age of LGBT."  So, if I get this right, Dowbiggin is telling us that the existence of people who aren’t straight -- the simple possibility that sexual congress may include more than just heterosexuals in the missionary position -- makes the entire concept of "duty" redundant?  He tells us we are in "the age of LGBT," which I suppose means that "gayness" is a recent phenomenon, perhaps thought up by some hippies in the 1960s who didn’t want to get a real job.  That this is "the age of LGBT" presumably implies that it will pass, like a fad, when people stop pandering to this whole gay trend.  What is more, this gay trend is actively undermining the concept of "duty," which can only mean that Dowbiggin thinks that people who aren’t heterosexual are naturally irresponsible and untrustworthy, since their very existence means that people no longer understand themselves as having duties.

Do lesbian, gay, transsexual and bisexual people not dutifully take responsibility for protecting themselves and each other from homophobic violence and bullying, by organizing events like Pride itself?  Does the struggle to gain the right to marriage not demonstrate a desire to publicly express and commit to a series of duties from one LGBT person to another?  Does the critique of the emphasis on gay marriage from within the LGBT community not similarly demonstrate that LGBT people feel a duty to think beyond liberal reform to resolve problems at their core?  Are LGBT people not also parents, friends, brothers, sisters, co-workers, teachers, students, and activists, and do those roles not imply all manner of duties that must be fulfilled?  In levelling such an outlandish, idiotic and offensive claim against anyone who isn’t straight, Dowbiggin is demonstrating precisely how homophobic the sports world really is, and why one of Brian Burke’s (and all of our) primary duties must be to take a stand against it.

Indeed, even if UFA Day was an important hockey event, is Dowbiggin telling us that Brian Burke’s duty is to sit in his office not signing free agents, rather than to honour his deceased son’s courage in coming out as gay in a hockey community that is as profoundly homophobic as it is structurally violent?  As Brian Burke himself has acknowledged, the persistence of homophobic violence in hockey is terrifyingly real; his first piece of advice to his son, upon his coming out, was to be extremely careful on and off the ice, as he would become an immediate target of other players’ violence.  "For the next couple of months," Burke told his son, "you have to be careful.  Keep your head on a swivel, I don’t want any Matthew Shepherd story here."

Indeed, there are already far too many Matthew Shepherd stories; Shepherd was beaten to death in a homophobic hate crime in Wyoming in 1998, Aaron Webster was murdered by gay-bashers with baseball bats in Vancouver in 2001, two gay men had their home firebombed in Prince Edward Island in 2011, and in April of this year LGBT activist Raymond Taavel was beaten and killed after surviving previous assaults.  In the context of a hockey culture dominated by the CBC-sanctioned ravings of someone like Don Cherry, who combines homophobic bigotry with a relentless glorification of violence, it is easy to understand why Burke was so worried about his son’s safety.

You can play – or can you?

It boggles the imagination to think that a sportswriter would drum up a controversy out of nothing simply in order to undermine the efforts of one of the few people in hockey trying to make the game safer for people whose private romantic lives don’t match the social norm.  But that is precisely what these sportswriters have been doing all week.  To be sure, there are plenty of individual commentators, like long-time Canadian broadcaster Paul Romanuk, who support Brian Burke’s work against homophobia, without being disingenuous.  They deserve credit for trying to be part of the solution, and they, like Burke, acknowledge that there is a long way to go.  But hockey is still Don Cherry’s world, and you can bet that he and his merry band of bigots will not allow the kinds of changes Brian Burke is pushing without a fight.

In fact, Cherry was all over the media calling for Burke’s resignation the very same week he launched the "You Can Play" campaign to combat homophobia in hockey.  While the CBC and the Toronto Sun gave Cherry all kinds of attention as he called Burke out for -- get this -- not having enough Ontario-born players on the Leafs’ roster, this absurd non-story was allowed to detract attention away from the first ever anti-homophobia campaign in NHL history.  In fact, the most attention the campaign got was in a feature piece in Toronto’s LGBT publication, Xtra!, for which Burke gave a full interview and was featured on the cover.


Brian Burke on the cover of Xtra! magazine, March 2012.

Brian Burke on the cover of Xtra! magazine, March 2012.

And while much of the media pretended not to notice the launch of "You Can Play," or focused on Don Cherry’s senile ravings, still others used the opportunity to openly attack Burke’s stance.  In one particularly appalling piece, David Menzies claimed in Huffington Post that Burke was "wrapping himself in the gay flag" because he needed a P.R. boost.

"In the anti-bullying biz these days," writes Menzies, "it seems there’s a subtext that the very worst sort of bullying is the kind that is perpetrated against homosexuals.  But why? Is it not equally repugnant to bully a gay kid as it is to bully a red-headed kid? Surely all forms of bullying are vile and should be eradicated."

Menzies’ strategy for eradicating all bullying, apparently, is to bully people who try to eradicate one form of it.  Of course, Menzies is being disingenuous in suggesting he wants to end all bullying, as his entire article is peppered with homophobia, which is capped off by the jaw-dropping assertion that there is no evidence of homophobia in hockey.

"Burke… is being roundly applauded for his feel-good initiative -- even though I’m unaware of a scintilla of evidence that any professional or amateur hockey player has ever been discriminated against or targeted due to his sexual orientation."

It’s hard to know where to begin unpacking such an absurd claim, beyond noting that no active player in the history of the NHL has ever admitted to being gay, which indicates either the most impossible odds in human history, or a well-oiled homophobic discipline machine that has a 100% success rate in frightening players out of being honest about who they love.  Of course, many NHL players have talked about their experiences of alternate sexuality without revealing their identities, and they have acknowledged that it would probably be safer to come out in the NHL than at any of the lower levels of amateur or professional hockey.  And if Menzies is looking for "evidence" of discrimination, he would do well to speak to Tanner Glass, an outstanding third-line checker who played last season with the Winnipeg Jets, and who endorsed the "You Can Play" campaign because he was sick of listening to players using anti-gay slurs on the ice.  "The language has got to be the first thing to go," Glass told the Winnipeg Sun.  "You hear it all the time."

Indeed, anyone who believes Menzies claim that there is no homophobia in hockey should check out a game sometime, to find out how wrong they are.  Any game, any time, at any level, in any capacity.  Or just watch one instalment of "Coaches Corner," and consider whether it constitutes homophobia to call a player who doesn’t act tough enough a "sweetheart."  And if the answer is "yes, the implication is that the player accused of being a ‘sweetheart’ is gay, and the further implication is that being gay is bad," then Brian Burke should not only be supported in attending Pride, he -- and other hockey personalities -- should be pushed to put much more energy into anti-homophobia campaigns.

Even the "You Can Play" campaign, for all its merits, notably features players who represent extreme forms of masculinity -- they are usually the fighters, grinders, tough guys, men with grizzled beards or visible scars -- suggesting that while these guys may vocally support young gay athletes, they are chosen because they, themselves, read as heterosexual and "manly."  That is, it is those players who worry the least about being "read as gay" who are willing to speak against homophobia, probably because those who are already targets of homophobic taunts -- the Sedin twins come to mind -- would only subject themselves to more of the same if they embraced the campaign.  (Though, to his credit, Henrik Sedin has publicly endorsed it.)

Nonetheless, thanks to the efforts of people like Brian Burke, the "You Can Play" campaign has gained some traction; witness the fact that two prominent members of the L.A. Kings made a video for the campaign this month, immediately after leading their team to a Stanley Cup championship.  There is, unmistakably, some momentum behind this admittedly small first step.  It’s time the media took a cue from the athletes who are promoting this message, cut out the coded homophobia (and the overt kind too) in their coverage of hockey, and start doing its part in making hockey a safer space for LGBT people.

Tyler Shipley is a writer and researcher from Winnipeg, MB, now based at York University in Toronto, ON, and is the editor of Left Hook: A Critical Review of Sports and Society, where this article first appeared. 

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