Hockey, Homophobia and the Limits of Collective Bargaining

I should preface this by saying that I’m not a big sports fan. I love to watch the occasional game with friends and can get into it when I do watch it, but if I were to name five players from the Ottawa Senators (hometown hockey team), I’d probably include a bunch that have been traded or retired years ago. So, keep in mind that everything I say here is coming from someone who knows very little about the sport.

In the little bit of sports news that I do read, I know that a number of events over the last few years have forced the world of professional sports to address the question of having openly gay players (by professional sports, I’m referring to male leagues which attract much more media attention than do female professional sports leagues). Whether it be as a result of the homophobic rants of former professional basketball players, witty defenses of same-sex marriage from NFL players or professional soccer players coming out publicly, the world of professional sports has had to deal with the question of whether it is ready to have openly gay athletes. Some athletes have come out only after their retirement, but with the exception of Robbie Rogers, there are very few openly gay male professional athletes.

I came across an article recently in which Wade Davis, an openly gay former NFL player, stated that he expects the NHL to be the first league to have an openly gay player. While Robbie Rogers’ decision to come out last week put an end to the NHL’s chance to be the first league, Davis’ argument makes sense. As the article points out, the NHL has been very active in their efforts to promote gay rights in professional sports. Former Toronto Maple Leafs’ General Manager Brian Burke’s and his son Patrick have spearheaded this effort through the You Can Play Project, a campaign encouraging athletes to create environments respectful of all players regardless of their sexual orientation. These sorts of efforts to promote respect and equality among players are to be commended and, I believe, could go a long way. However, despite Wade Davis’ prediction, the NHL has yet to have a single openly gay player.

Brian Burke in the 2011 Toronto Pride Parade (photo credit: Ping Foo)

Brian Burke in the 2011 Toronto Pride Parade (photo credit: Ping Foo)

While I can’t view this issue through the eyes of a sports fan, I do look at it through the eyes of a union member and an historian of gay and lesbian rights in the workplace. Being a professional hockey player is a career. For professional hockey players, the arena and the locker room are workplaces. Like many other workers, NHL players have a union and a collective agreement. One day, out of curiosity, I decided to look up a copy of the agreement between the NHL and the players’ association, the NHLPA (the most recent contract doesn’t seem to be available online). Like many other unions, the NHLPA’s contract includes a clause protecting its members from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. While human rights legislation in Canada has made these sorts of clauses standard, this was not always the case. In Ontario, gay and lesbian union members began to push for the inclusion of anti-discrimination language into their collective agreements in the early 1970s. They did so in large part because, at that time, gay and lesbian workers were frequently harassed and dismissed from their jobs solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. They hoped that providing lesbian and gay workers with legal protection from discrimination would encourage more of them to come out of the closet.

While the presence of an anti-discrimination clause in the NHLPA’s collective agreement demonstrates the extent to which gay and lesbian union members were successful, the fact that the NHL has yet to have a single openly gay player despite the existence of this clause demonstrates just how limited of a victory this was. Although the players are all legally protected from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, not one single player has come out. The reason for this is simple: these clauses protect workers (or in this case, players) from discrimination at the hands of their employers, but do very little to protect gay and lesbian workers from homophobic co-workers (or in this case, teammates). While collective agreements can provide workers from their employers, they do very little to address problematic workplace cultures. This is likely one of the main reasons that some workplaces, including professional sports leagues, have so few openly gay workers.

The further along I get in my research, the clearer this point becomes. Collective agreements don’t change workplace cultures, and workplace cultures don’t change overnight. This is why I would argue that, in a profession that seems to be behind the times in terms of inclusion of queer workers, efforts such as the You Can Play Project seem to be a step in the right direction. Although they are often initiatives of straight allies in the sports world (a fact that perhaps speaks to the importance of their work), they are nevertheless carrying the fight into areas beyond the reach of anti-discrimination clauses.

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