On Thursday, the National Hockey League (NHL) and the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) announced the most comprehensive sports initiative by a major men’s sports league in North America in support of gay rights. In their joint venture, the NHL and it’s players has formed a partnership with the You Can Play project, an advocacy group formed to fight homophobia within sports culture. The NHL has asserted that their motto is “Hockey is for Everyone,” and they feel that this partnership with You Can Play reaffirms this motto by asserting that "the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms, and in the stands."
The initiative taken by the NHL and its players is historic, and incredibly important. Homophobia within sports culture is no secret, and the partnership between the NHL and NHLPA with the You Can Play project is a monumental first step towards dismantling homophobic stereotypes in sports. However, will other major sports leagues follow suit? I believe that they will, but not for another few years. Even with growing support from athletes themselves for gay rights, change cannot happen overnight: It will take years for similar initiatives to pass across the board of major sports leagues, and even longer for homophobia to disappear from sports culture.
More and more athletes have come out as gay over the past few years. Former NFL Tennessee Titans player Wade Davis came out in 2012 as gay, and spoke about his life as a closeted gay football player in the NFL, illustrating the homophobia within the sport and how he feared he would lose the sense of “camaraderie and family” he felt with his team if he came out. In October 2012, Orlando Cruz became the first openly gay boxer, once again challenging the notion of homosexuality as incompatible with the masculine image of sports.
Moreover, athletes have become more open about supporting homosexuality. NFL Minnesota Vikings player Chris Kluwe filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in favor of gay marriage, and also published an article on PolicyMic asserting why it’s important that millennials care about same-sex rights. Former NFL Baltimore Ravens player Brendon Ayanbadejo closely works with Athlete Ally, a program that supports gay athletes, and has been vocal in his strong opinions on support for same-sex marriage.
These clear signs of change show that many recognize homophobia within sport culture as discriminatory and harmful, not only to professional athletes, but also to young children who aspire to reach that level of professional athleticism. Despite this, it’s not clear that any other sport leagues will make moves to release a comprehensive advocacy initiative to support gay rights, like the NHL any time soon. As anecdotes by Wade Davis show, the stigma against homosexuality within sports is great, and it forces many into silence. While that silence has been broken, it will take a much longer time for that silence to be completely shattered.
Individual athletes have voiced their opinions and have partnered with advocacy groups, but it will take time for these individual efforts to break down the homophobic stereotypes that are deeply embedded within the social mindset of sports culture. The NHL has taken a huge first step in breaking down these walls, and if individual efforts of athletes persist, we can expect other major sports leagues to follow in the footsteps of the NHL in a matter of years. But change can never happen over night.
Homophobia will likely persist within sports for a much longer time, even if every major sports league passes initiatives to support gay rights. It’s the individual advocacy efforts of athletes, celebrities, millennials, and other supporters of gay rights that will help transform the mindset that is so deeply embedded within the sports world.