NHL takes the lead in supporting equality, on and off the ice

In light of the NHL’s highly publicized support of the “You Can Play” campaign, which includes statements by some of the League’s top players saying they support an open, homophobia-free environment for all individuals, we are including an article we penned before the 2011 Super Bowl that touches upon some of the same issues of the campaign. That is, that sports can take a leadership role in educating about the right of all individuals to be free of discriminatory, hateful speech and behavior. We applaud the efforts of the NHL and others in sports who have embraced this role.


On the battlefield of sports, nothing Super about DADT

“This is going to be a real battle.” “It’s going to be a war out there.” “I wouldn’t want any other guys watching my back.” “We will make history together.”

Quotes from the fields ofAfghanistan?Iraq? Nope, quotes likely to be heard leading up to Super Bowl XLV. While the misuse of combat-related terminology can be disturbing, the vernacular does serve as another bridge between those who participate in sports and in the armed services.

Both fields certainly demand similar qualities – strength, commitment, trust, performance, teamwork – to achieve a common goal, i.e. winning. But efforts to achieve said goal have been compromised by not embracing all those who could be key contributors. Why would anyone do that? Who doesn’t want to have the best teammates, the best fellow soldiers, to maximize their chances to win? The person who carries you to safety or who makes that diving catch for a touchdown. Everyone should want that teammate – that fellow soldier – unless, it seems, if that person is gay.

Is that what we really think? Maybe that is what a few people think. But what about those whose opinion really matters, those on the battle and playing fields?

In the Pentagon report that served as an important component in the effort to repeal DADT, 115,000 members of the military were surveyed and the conclusion was that “the risk of repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell to overall military effectiveness is low.”

The survey found that 69 percent of respondents said they had served with someone in their unit who they believed to be gay or lesbian. Of those who did, 92 percent stated that their unit’s ability to work together was very good, good, or neither good nor poor, the report said. Combat units reported similar responses, with 89 percent of Army combat units and 84 percent of Marine combat units saying they had good or neutral experiences working with gays and lesbians.

A 2006 Sports Illustrated survey asked pro basketball, football and hockey players whether they would “welcome an openly gay teammate.” Over half the athletes polled from the NFL, NBA, and NHL said yes. In another poll, conducted in 2005 by the market research firm Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, 78 percent of the 979 randomly surveyed Americans agreed that it is “okay for gay athletes to participate in sports, even if they are open about their sexuality.” In a 2007 national survey by Witeck-Combs Communications and Harris Interactive, 72S% of heterosexual adults say they would not change their feelings toward a ‘favorite’ male professional athlete if the athlete revealed he is gay. This represents an increase from 66% in 2002, when heterosexual adults were asked the same survey question.

I think we underestimate the ability of athletes, soldiers, and the general public, to deal with those who are different. Is it because of some enlightened perspective they have? Probably not. More likely, it’s about wanting to have a teammate whom they can trust, who is as committed to winning as they are, and who plays hard. Consider the player who can pass for 300 yards on a regular basis, bat .400 with runners in scoring position, or average 25 points a game. Gay, straight, black or white, if you are a competitive athlete, you want them on your team. Jackie Robinson’s personal makeup – courage, determination, integrity – was unassailable. But when it came down to it, Branch Rickey wanted him because he was a great player. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Each of the aforementioned surveys showed that not everyone is ready for openly gay soldiers and athletes. But failing to have 100% agreement is not a reason to fail when it comes to advocating for fairness. We must have the courage to make decisions that move us to equality on battle and playing fields, despite the inevitable (heated) arguments, or even protests.

When it came to DADT, such courage in decision-making was displayed by top figures in the military, e.g. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and Army Gen. Carter F. Ham. Not everyone in the military agrees with the new policy but it certainly means something when everyone’s boss wants a particular policy enforced.

According to Secretary Gates: “We spend a lot of time in the military talking about integrity and honor and values.” “One of the things that is most important to me is personal integrity, and a policy or a law that in effect requires people to lie gives me a problem.”

In sports, we talk about integrity, sportsmanship, loyalty, fair play, determination and courage. To live up to those ideals, we need to see our leaders – Goodell (NFL), Selig (MLB), Stern (NBA), Bettman (NHL), Blackmun (USOC), Emmert (NCAA) – take a stand as Secretary Gates and his brethren have done. Promote a policy that does not require people to lie about, or hide, who they really are. With such a policy in place, everyone will have a better chance to win.