Hockey, for a sport that's nominally proactive in areas ranging from replay to concussions, has never been especially progressive. No one expects the openly gay pro athlete, the inevitable big story for the next decade, to come from the NHL. While other leagues have John Amaechi and Billy Bean and Esera Tuaolo, the closest thing the NHL's had to a gay figure didn't skate a shift after high school.
Keep that in mind as you follow this whole Sean Avery saga. (Short version: Avery made a commercial in support of gay marriage. An agent, via his agency's Twitter account, expressed disappointment in Avery.) It's a proxy battle, for now. Until there's an actual gay teammate for Avery to support and for others to slur, this will remain entirely theoretical, an issue that exists mainly so people can congratulate themselves on their open-mindedness.
Brendan Burke was a high school player who quit the team because he feared his teammates' reactions if they found out he was gay. He came out first to his father, Brian Burke, who was then Anaheim's general manager, and later to his college team. Acceptance was near-universal. Then, just three months after he came out in an ESPN interview, he was killed in a car accident.
That's it. That was the extent of the discussion of homosexuality and homophobia at the top level of hockey, which is surprising considered the league is much more international and ostensibly freer of the DL culture that dogs athletes in other sports.
Which makes Sean Avery something of a pioneer. Baby steps.
Avery filmed a spot for the Human Rights Campaign supporting gay marriage. His was one of many celebrities' messages, and was lauded, if quietly. But HRC greatest coup wasn't getting Avery: it was inviting the expected negative reaction to Avery's comments.
The Twitter account for Uptown Sports, a sports management agency that represents NHL players including Chris Neil and Mike Fisher, sent this out yesterday evening.
The counter-reaction was swift and condemning, at least among those who chose to get involved. As one wag pointed out, Uptown Sports had somehow ceded the moral high ground to Sean Avery. It became a story like it could never have before, because public homophobia is apparently a bigger story than public tolerance. It becomes a story for Uptown Sports' clients, for for the activists, for Uptown Sports itself.
Of course, Twitter is an excellent way for a personal opinion to be issued under the guise of some kind of authority. Uptown Sports' Twitter account is manned by Todd Reynolds, the firm's vice president and son of the president. (The Twitter page description now carries a note to that effect.) He was quick to make known the comments were his and his alone.
When contacted today, Reynolds declined to speak, preferring his radio interview last night be his "last word" on the matter. Here's what he said:
"I believe in voicing your opinion and not being part of the silent majority," he told TSN radio. "If Sean Avery or any other player can comment on one side of the discussion then — I work in hockey, I'm in hockey 24-7 — why can I not comment on it as well?"
That's a valid question, and leads to another one we're constantly confronting: Do we care if sports figures don't believe in dinosaurs or are 9/11 truthers or believe same-sex marriage is wrong? The dustups that follow indicate time and time again that, yes, we do. We forget this sometimes, but pro athletes and sports figures aren't monolithic in their beliefs or their politics, and it often says more about us when we seize on their opinions than it does about them. Read this column about Rashard Mendenhall, for instance. What Mendenhall said was self-evidently stupid, and it was good for a grim laugh at most. The columnist went beyond that, though. He preened and wallowed. That column wasn't about Mendenhall's wrongheadedness so much as it was about the writer's righteousness.
Unpopular opinions like Reynolds's are fresh meat for those on the periphery of the sport who would lionize an openly gay athlete, if only one existed. The problem remains that no gay hockey player has yet to feel comfortable enough to come out, so despite the chest-thumping progressiveness from the seats, the sea change will only come with attitudes in the locker room. And if the Brian Burke story was too removed from the game to make that much of an impact on players in the closet, this isn't going to change anyone's mind either. It's nice to have the discussion, muted though it may be, but let's remember that the hockey community's tentative steps into this particular ethical arena have never amounted to anything more than making a martyr and shouting down a bigot. Since we don't have a gay hockey player to rally around, fans and media do the next best thing: We find a bad guy and inflate his importance. We rally around the bogeyman instead.