Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wayne Simmonds and bigotry in the NHL

Wayne Simmonds has been the centre of two major on-ice controversies in the NHL preseason this year. Firstly, Simmonds, a black player, was the target of a thrown banana peel during a shootout attempt while playing the Detroit Red Wings in London, Ontario. Secondly, Simmonds was accused of using a homophobic slur against Sean Avery of the New York Rangers.

In the first situation, the fan was arrested; in the second situation, the NHL has declined to punish Simmonds. Racism and homophobia are aspects of sport that have been prevalent over the past century, during which national sports leagues have flourished in North America; while one a more recent monkey than the other, both have been forced into the limelight at various times. Hockey, however, hasn't had to deal much with either.

Hockey is a sport that is traditionally considered exclusively Caucasian. Any time you see a clip referring to a black player, one of the top comments is, "Black people play hockey?!". This means that while major stars have been black - such as Grant Fuhr and Jarome Iginla - hockey has never had to deal with the idea of racism. Hockey's first black player, Willie O'Ree, was a call-up who played a few dozen games before playing in the minor leagues the rest of his career. After O'Ree's stint with the Bruins in 1958, it wasn't until 1974 that another black player made his debut. In a very real manner, hockey passed by the issue of race and racism that filled the 1960s. When O'Ree played, Martin Luther King Jr. had barely formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Brown vs. Board of Education was 3 years old and hardly implemented, and miscegenation laws were on the books in 23 US states. When the next black player touched the ice, King was dead, segregation was gone, and Loving v. Virginia had implemented interracial marriage across the USA. The colour line in the NHL was more of a footnote.

That doesn't mean that black players in the NHL have had it easy; it means that the problem of racism in hockey has never been dealt with on a wide level. Nobody has ever stopped to point out that there was great amounts of discrimination; nobody has ever stopped to note the difficulties for a black child playing league hockey. Simply, because history passed hockey by, hockey never dealt with history, making it easy for us to believe that the locker room in rinks across the world are happy places. This is a lie.

The NHL has a lack of diversity. There are, perhaps, two dozen black players who will suit up for the NHL this season. Some of them are stars - Iginla, Dustin Byfuglien, and PK Subban are all major names - and some of them are not. There's a few people of Asian descent in the NHL (such as Richard Park or Manny Malholtra), a couple Native Canadians (Jordin Tootoo or Jonathan Cheechoo), and maybe two Hispanic-descent players (Scott Gomez is the only one who comes immediately to mind). They're trying to fix this, but it is going to be a long process. Ethnic communities are disproportionately poor in both Canada and the USA, and this means that hockey's expense is beyond the reach of many families. Charities such as Hockey Is For Everyone are working to fix this disparity, but it will be a long process to increase the diversity of Canada's game. The goal, however, has to be to make sure that the banana-throwing incident are the exception, rather than the hidden norm.

The same can be said for homophobia in the NHL, except in this case, history hasn't already passed the NHL by. The other incident involving Simmonds is when Sean Avery alleged that Simmonds called him a "fucking faggot" during a pre-season game, after a combative shift between the two players. The NHL, after reviewing the situation, decided not to fine or otherwise discipline Simmonds, claiming that they cannot ascertain exactly what was said on the ice.

I've reviewed the clip myself, and Simmonds definitely uttered two offensive words. I'm no lip-reading expert, and it could be that he said "fucking faggot", but I could also see Simmonds saying "mother fucker", which is another popular epithet around the NHL. Without audio review, the NHL decided - in my opinion, correctly - that they cannot fine Simmonds without clear evidence. That the only person alleging Simmonds used the anti-gay slur was Sean Avery further complicates the case - Avery has a long history of using inappropriate language, and is not considered a trustworthy figure in hockey. His support for gay marriage in New York is admirable, but being an ally in one situation doesn't automatically make him trustworthy.

Because you cannot ascertain guilt, I'm glad the NHL didn't fine Simmonds. This has caused an outcry from the LGBT community, who are understandably upset at the allegation; proof, however, must be important before damning a player in these situations. I got the petition from this morning; I won't sign it. The appropriate action would be to push the NHL to recognize that gay people are the equal of straight people. LGBT hockey players are completely unheard of - one of the few gay figures from the hockey world, Brendan Burke (son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke), died a couple years ago. Brian marches in Toronto's Pride Parade to this day in memory of his son. Save for this one solitary figure, I couldn't come up with a single example of a gay hockey player.

The NHL responded to this incident by sending a player memorandum explaining that homophobic slurs are not welcome in the NHL, which is the best that one can hope for, given that the evidence is not 100% clear. I do not doubt that if the NHL had audio evidence or an official's report they would have suspended Simmonds. What I do doubt is that the players will not take this seriously. LGBT activists and allies should pressure the NHL to use this controversy as an opportunity to clarify their rules surrounding inappropriate slurs in the NHL and on ice. They should take this opportunity to reach out to LGBT organizations and form official alliances. They should take the opportunity to honour people like Brendan Burke who came out amidst one of the toughest, most homophobic environments outside of Iran and other theocracies - the pro sports locker room.

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