NHL: Are the alpha male, frat boy caves and fans ready to welcome a gay player?

Once upon another lifetime, I sniffed jocks for a living.

Yes, I agree, that sounds rather disgusting, but you shouldn’t take it in the literal sense. A jock-sniffer, you see, is someone who writes/talks about the goings-on of professional athletes and their teams, which I did for 30 years as a sports scribe with various publications, both newspaper and magazine.

patti dawn swansson
patti dawn swansson

I went into their changing rooms (a nasty bit of business, that). I rode on their buses. I flew on their airplanes (got caught at the L.A. airport with the Winnipeg Jets when an earthquake shook the City of Angels in the late 1980s). I sometimes broke bread or had pints with them.

So, I know a bit about pro athletes and what does or doesn’t make their engines purr.

And let me tell you this: If I had $100 for every time I heard a hockey player use the word “fag” or “faggot”, I could afford a shack on Wellington Crescent in Winnipeg and have enough cash left over for Jets seasons tickets.

Hockey players toss those words around like confetti at a wedding. Seriously, the locker rooms I entered were gay friendly like Tiger Woods is a virgin. They were man caves. Macho, alpha male, frat boy man caves.

I bring this to your attention today because the National Hockey League/NHL Players Association have climbed into bed with the You Can Play Project, a laudable initiative that seeks to ensure equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. It is a most admirable cause that crusades to stamp out homophobia in hockey and challenges the macho culture of locker rooms and among the patrons who frequent the 30 NHL rinks.

The front man behind You Can Play is Patrick Burke, a Philadelphia Flyers scout who was anointed Man of the Year for 2012 by Xtra.

Be advised that Xtra is a gay publication. It speaks to all things LGBT. Yet this gay publication bestowed its highest salute on Burke. A hockey guy. A straight hockey guy, to the best of my knowledge.

Think about that for a moment. Chew on it. Although there is nothing remotely gay about the NHL, Xtra selected a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers as the leading light in the LGBT community’s ongoing quest for equality. And now we have the NHL/NHLPA linking arms and walking in lockstep toward the day an openly gay man feels comfortable enough in his own skin to step out of the closet and say, “Here I am, world! Deal with it!”

Is it important that a gay NHL player—or one in any of the other three major professionals sports leagues in North America—comes out while he is active? Well, it’s important to the gay community and it should be important to society. It will represent the breaking down of the last bastion. Our Berlin Wall, if you will. There are openly gay politicians, doctors, lawyers, teachers, singers/songwriters, actors, writers, artists, clergy, tennis players, golfers, boxers, etc. But there’s not one gay man in any of the NHL, National Football League, Major League Baseball or National Basketball Association? That, my friends, is logic defying.

Of course there are, and have been, gay men active in those enterprises. They just stay hidden until their playing days are in the rear view mirror. But why?

Because of the macho, alpha male, frat boy man caves. And the intolerant and bigoted who sit in the pews, that’s why.

I remember all those man caves I entered over a 30-year time frame. I remember the lewd, crude comments about women. About gays. I remember conducting an interview with a naked Tiger Williams pawing at his balls while I dutifully jotted down his bons mots after a Vancouver Canucks’ playoff game (talk about disgusting working conditions). And how often have you heard some lout on a bar stool refer to Daniel and Henrik as “the Sedin sisters?” Too often, I’m afraid.

“It’s impossible to really overstate how difficult it might be for an individual athlete to have the courage to come out,” Burke told the Los Angeles Times last December. “The challenges and the fears are justified. They’re real.”

Fear is the operative word and only a gay, lesbian or transgender person knows that fear. No one else can even comprehend that fear, because you must be it and live it to be on speaking terms with it. That fear of being ‘outed’ or coming out is a formidable foe.

Fear is the singular reason why the ‘gay Jackie Robinson’ remains rooted in the closet. He fears the character crucifixion. He fears the condemnation, ridicule and mockery. He fears the physical attacks and the emotional pummeling. He fears the death threats that surely would arrive. He fears the ostracism. He fears a media that will dig up every morsel of dirt it can discover about his life. He fears he doesn’t have the strength to survive. He fears loss of friends and family. He fears coming out would be a career-closing decision, like it was for Glenn Burke of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics.

Fear is a formidable foe. It can be paralyzing. Any gay, lesbian or transgender person can tell you that.

The thing is, any active-yet-closeted gay athlete isn’t fooling his teammates. Although there’s an unfortunate tendency to color pro athletes as scholarly challenged, they aren’t stupid. They know when they have a gay teammate. Keep in mind that these people live in close-knit, gated communities. They are loath to let outsiders in on their secrets. But they know. All one need do is read Out: The Glenn Burke Story or watch the documentary of the same name for confirmation.

“The players had no problem with it. They loved him as a person despite his sexual orientation. He was a part of the team. They were upset, sad, pissed off when he was traded. That was the beginning of the end of his career. And that’s where his downward spiral began,” Out producer Doug Harris says of Burke.

That was during the 1970s, and we can only wonder how much has changed in the alpha man caves. Or in the stands.

The NHL/NHLPA-You Can Play union suggests the landscape has shifted considerably since the days when Oakland’s bigoted manager Billy Martin branded Burke a “faggot” in front of his teammates.

So good on the NHL/NHLPA.

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