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Hockeyhell: The NHL's LGBT Wars, and What Happens When Pro Athletes Make Progressive Statements

Professional athletes are increasingly expressing their staunch political beliefs, from left to right. How do we distinguish when politics are simply commerce?

As they say on ESPN, May was huge for the LGBT community in sports.

(Caveat: When it comes to making gains in sports, generally the term translates to big-money team sports, played by men. Maybe it shouldn’t be this way, but those are the games that define and reflect the cultural mainstream.)

Rick Welts, the president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns and once the third most powerful man in the league's offices, ended his decades of silence. Suns players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley appeared in a PSA decrying the casual, trash-talk use of "faggot." The spot, prompted by a Kobe Bryant sideline utterance from April, aired throughout the playoffs. Kobe was fined $100,000, and when Bulls center Joakim Noah used the word in a shouting match with a hostile fan this past month, he was docked $50,000.

More importantly, Noah—raised in a boho household and likely one of the NBA's most open-minded players—pulled no punches in his apology. It showed how mindlessly even the most liberal of players can throw around a word without even registering his engagement in hate-speech.

Suns point guard Steve Nash, the league's go-to lefty, has openly supported gay marriage. Irascible television commentator Charles Barkley, one of the most respected and unfiltered voices in the sport, has been banging that drum for a while now. He went a step further this month, announcing that he didn't think an openly gay NBA player would be all that big a deal.

A lot of this is just talk, or simply acknowledging that words have meaning, even when we don't intend them to. Awareness is not the same thing as tolerance; tolerance still only brings us right up to the edge of what the first openly gay player will experience, and how those around him (peers, fans, corporate leadership) will process it. But there are stirrings, encouraging signs, the social justice equivalent of Mars rover findings. They also pale in comparison to some developments on the other side that, in their marriage of politics and commerce, raise all sorts of new structural concerns.

Hockey may not be as central to the American dialogue as basketball, but there are plenty of teams in this country, and it's a sport on the rise. What's more, since Canada is often a far more progressive place, it makes sense that its national sport might also have something to say about the issue. Rangers forward Sean Avery, known for his crude, un-PC insults, Vogue internship, and unsportsmanlike play, recorded a spot for the New Yorkers for Marriage Equality Campaign.

Shortly after it aired, Todd Reynolds, the vice-president of Ontario's Uptown Sports agency, took to Twitter to voice his disapproval. Reynolds tweeted that he was "very sad to read Sean Avery's misguided support of same-gender 'marriage.' Legal or not, it will always be wrong."

True to form, Twitter reacted immediately, prompting more from Reynolds: "To clarify. This is not hatred or bigotry towards gays. It is not intolerance in any way shape or form. I believe we are all equal... But I believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. This is my personal viewpoint. I do not hate anyone."

Reynolds' “personal viewpoint” excuse doesn’t really hold water. Uptown Sports is a small agency, where the line between the personal and the corporate is hard to distinguish. Reynolds told the National Post that “that is not the basis on which we run our business. We’re not asking questions like that of our clients. And frankly, if Sean Avery were a client of mine, I would support him in his beliefs.” Yet Uptown Sports—again, a small agency—has a vice-president associated with some very particular, and questionable, positions; its brand name is (now) inseparable from this incident.