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How the Avs fought back against homophobia online this month of Pride

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Substantive Note: This post discusses homophobia and specifically the use of homophobic utterances in hockey. I deliberately didn’t repeat the slur in this post, but I’ve linked to articles that do, and included tweets directly addressing homophobia.

For the past month, the Colorado Avalanche has devoted its focus to a run for the Stanley Cup, one that finally led to success last weekend. However, it is not all the organization has done. While the players’ attention was understandably focused on the games they had to play; the organization in general spent a significant amount of time showing their support for something else. Proud month.

Hockey is not always for everyone

Hockey has a complicated relationship with Pride. In fact, it has a complicated relationship with LGBTQ+ people, be it players, coaches, or fans. Report former players experienced homophobic abuse in locker rooms and on the iceand the casual use of defamation has been noted as a disturbing feature of hockey culture† It starts with coaches and parents scream this slander, normalizing their use around young children, who then start using them as players. Gay hockey players point to the use of casual homophobic languagelike saying it’s so gleeful to refer to something negative, as a barrier that keeps them from coming out.

Even among straight hockey players there is a fear of being considered gay, or of not living up to the image that has been built up of what a hockey player should be. Although some NHL players Pride tape on their sticks or equipment and have outspoken against homophobiaothers have suggested it can lead to: more chirping on the iceas well as their own teammates.

Create change

Organizations like you can play aim to change this. Their goal is to make hockey and other sports more welcoming and inclusive so that everyone can play, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Their work is important, but I have often felt that there is a lack of a more radical advocacy approach that can be needed to really change the culture of this sport. From the sidelines, it can feel a little watered down, focusing on one-off events and celebrations rather than shining a light on the deeper, less palatable experiences of LGBTQ+ athletes and fans.

Individual players have also worked to change hockey culture. Luke Prokop came out as gay in July 2021. He is the first-ever contracted player to an NHL club to come out as gay. In a sport where thousands of people have played at the NHL level over the years, no one, even a former player, has come before him. It is unlikely that all of these players were straight. The more realistic view is that they didn’t want to attract media attention or feel safe coming out. Never know how many gay hockey players there are. It cannot be assumed that the percentage of gay players in the NHL and other professional leagues is the same as in the general population, since gay men choose to leave the sport when they are younger because of the unwelcome environment. Luke has used his own story to educate people from outside the LGBTQ+ community and to offer support for those who may not feel like they can be open about who they are in hockey.

Perhaps as a result of You Can Play’s work, or under pressure from some fans, NHL clubs have worked to change their image and perception of hockey as a homophobic sport. Pride nights are becoming a pretty standard part of the NHL calendar. The Colorado Avalanche held theirs in March and fans on Twitter described it as awesome and thanked the organization for their support.

Where Pride Nights Fail

Despite these advances, there is still much work to be done. Pride nights have been described as performative, taking money on behalf of a community that: ignore professional sports leagues for the rest of the year. Brock McGillis, a former OHL and UHL goalkeeper who is openly gay, explains that: teams need to be educated about things like homophobia in sports, rather than treating Pride night as a check-off exercise. These evenings can be ineffective as a means of creating deeper cultural change within the sport if they are just a one-off event.

Very little research has been done on the long-term effects of Pride nights and other diversity-themed events in sport. A joint study conducted by Monash University Australia and Toronto’s Ryerson University found that players who participate in Pride events use less homophobic language than players who do not participate. Researchers interviewed players from Australia’s elite ice hockey league, so the results cannot be guaranteed to reflect the culture within the NHL. 38% of players on teams that hosted Pride events reported using homophobic language at least once in a two-week period, compared to 61% of players on teams that didn’t host a Pride match.

While the results indicate that Pride games can positively affect player behavior, homophobic language is still used by more than a third of players who participate in these events. Self-reported data can also be unreliable as players may not remember or even know the language.

When Andrew Shaw yelled a homophobic slur at an official on the ice in 2016, it attracted national attention and resulted in him receive a suspension† He explained that although he knew the literal meaning of the slur he had used, he never thought about how it could be considered an attack on gays. It was so normalized, so much part of the culture he grew up in. To him, it was a casual insult used in the locker room and on the ice. Shaw apologized that seemed extremely sincere, but his story shows that using homophobic utterances is something players may not even be aware of. Could they if they remember the times when they used homophobic language? Would they be aware of the lasting impact of their words?

Growth of the avalanche

The Avalanche have been called up in the past for their handling of Pride events. Their Pride night promotion 2020 was criticized for being focus on straight allies, rather than LGBTQ+ people. They didn’t mention LGBTQ+ fans at all and were vague and Avoided Answering Questions in the statement they released when questioned about their marketing around the event. Whether intentionally or not, it seems the Avalanche has been working to change not just Pride nights, but the way they talk about LGBTQ+ people and activism. This year, they made sure to speak directly about gay rights during their Pride night and shared messages of support from some of the team members on their social media.

In June, they continued to defend LGBTQ+ rights and expressed their support even louder. While Colorado wasn’t the only team to post about Pride Month on social media, the approach they took was very different from many clubs. They knew that people would react negatively to their posts. Instead of ignoring the negativity, they responded to it. They are not the first to spout homophobic language on social media. When Boston Bruins winger Brad Marchand was targeted with a homophobic slur he made sure to point out how harmful the language was.

However, it could be the first time an NHL team has gone so deeply into educating those who react negatively to their Pride-themed messages.

People’s lives are already mixed with sports, so that’s not an option, they noted after receiving a comment from someone expressing a desire to separate their activism from sports. While this response may seem quite mild, they have been persistent in their support for LGBTQ+ people throughout the month and would respond more forcefully where necessary.

They also made a conscious effort to commission and promote art by LGBTQ+ artists, and to showcase local organizations worthy of attention during Pride Month. In two years, they evolved from a team focused on allies to one that loudly challenged discrimination and supported LGBTQ+ creators.

I’m not sure if their plea last month was perfect, especially since I’m not sure if anyone could be. For most of us, it’s something we work on, learn and grow every day when we make mistakes. I believe this is what they have done and will continue to do, especially as they are committed to ensuring that their actions continue to reflect what they have been talking about during Pride month.

While these actions may seem a little vague, rather than being concrete steps, they show an awareness that supporting Pride goes beyond a month of tweeting or hosting an event. It’s a long-term, committed effort to change a culture that has long viewed LGBTQ+ people as inferior. Other NHL teams can learn a lot from their approach. This is not to say that no other club does this job, but rarely do I see teams challenging homophobic comments in such a public way.

The Avalanche cannot change hockey culture alone. But they do play a role in creating the kind of change that is needed. By going beyond a single event to showcase local organizations that support LGBTQ+ people, and perhaps more importantly, by responding to negative comments they receive, they demonstrate their commitment to being a part of this cultural shift is genuine. It’s not enough to host an event or say you hate homophobia. You have to challenge it when you see it, especially when you get the kind of protection that a name like the Colorado Avalanche gives you.

Sources

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2/ https://www.milehighhockey.com/2022/7/4/23193756/how-the-colorado-avalanche-fought-back-against-homophobia-this-pride-month

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