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


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.

Even if Reynolds never intended these tweets as anything more than a statement of personal belief (which, of course, is still problematic), the Uptown Sports brand, for the time being, is a socially conservative one; the players who have stuck with it are at best apolitical and at worst actively embracing the agency's accidental identity. To do so when so many other players had strong reactions against Uptown Sports suggests that this isn't just a fleeting concern. It's on the mind of the sport, and to sit idle is, in effect, taking a stand.

At first blush, this would not appear to be smart business. Agency brands may be less memorable, but athlete brands are obsessed over, and, certainly, players in every sport have at times taken drastic action to “protect the brand." An athlete’s brand can have a drastic effect on lucrative opportunities like endorsements and public appearances. And yet Uptown has not lost a single client. It’s entirely possible that Uptown, with less to lose and more flexibility than bigger agencies, has made a gamble on appealing to culturally conservative sports fans. If Avery, or an NBA player like Nash, can be perceived as left-friendly, why not court the other extreme?

The mechanics of this messaging are especially suspicious. Usually, it’s the job of agents to run interference when athletes shoot off their mouths. Here, the agent, rather than playing spin doctor, is saying the thing the athletes can’t. And yet, by sticking with Uptown, the pros reap the benefits.

At least in America, politics are polarizing. The right, religious or otherwise, and to a lesser degree, the left, make for important consumer blocks. Say a Nash or Avery is admired for his stance, aiding his brand. Shouldn’t there be other fans out there just clamoring for a player who, however subtly, stands with his values? To be even more cynical about it, maybe Todd Reynolds isn’t an incompetent jerk, or an irresponsible one, but a clever strategist. It may be a risky maneuver, but Reynolds serving as mouthpiece makes it less so.

It’s no worse for business than Avery’s PSA. If anything, there’s more of a cushion, more plausible deniability. Forget belief; the Uptown saga could have been nothing more than a publicity stunt in the name of commerce.

If this sounds paranoid, or dystopic, look no further than the Baltimore Orioles’ Luke Scott, who has been spouting pro-gun, anti-Obama, birther-esque--at times almost racist--rhetoric for any reporter who cares to listen. The Orioles eventually told Scott, whose act (or rank stupidity) garnered him an ESPN feature, to cut it out in the clubhouse. Note, though, that this order didn’t come from Scott’s agent or manager, or anyone else with a direct financial stake in his brand. The team doesn’t want fans turned off, and turned away from games, by Scott’s antics. Anywhere else means more publicity, and of a kind that establishes him firmly as the patron athlete of Tea Party aspirants everywhere.

We have a tendency to idealize politics in sports because they appear so rarely, and because explicit statements tend to come from the left. Conservative athletes, by and large, could get away with a few key statements that signaled the whole cluster of values that, by implication, held. What’s more, with Muhammad Ali serving as the model, it’s inconceivable that they could be intertwined with commerce. At this point, that couldn’t be further from the case. Only a true radical like Ali, who was willing to forfeit stardom for his beliefs, transcends branding and money-making.

The rise of the radical right, and increased polarization along the lines of issues like gay marriage, changes the calculus. Scott caters to a niche audience the same way that any other identity-driven celebrity does. Let’s not kid ourselves: On some level, it will be the same way with the first openly gay NBA or NHL player.

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