Opinion – The NHL Missed the Net

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Thunder Bay – OPINION – On March 25th, social media was abuzz because a few NHL players chose to not wear a pride jersey during warm-ups. By writing this article, I am hoping to outline my support for the concept while calling into question the method the NHL chose to take. I fully expect there will be people who are going to disagree with me. Some may that I am intolerant, or transphobic etc. Again, I completely support the goal of inclusion, I just have a concern of how they are doing it.

I believe the media, and corporate America have a role to play in promoting inclusion. Hollywood can be the fastest most efficient group to break down these barriers. But supporting their objectives does not mean I agree with the methods they may use. Putting it simply, we can agree that losing weight is a great goal, but few would agree the best method is starving yourself. I may be in the minority by disagreeing with the NHL, but I can live with that.

Take a random survey of any seven hundred people and ask them if they would be okay wearing a pride shirt at work? What would the results be? Sixty percent, seventy, eighty? Eighty percent in any survey on any topic is an incredibly high number. If the number was seventy percent, still very high, that would mean 210 people out of the 700 would not approve. This suggests conformity by some NHL players because by and large they likely represent society in general in terms of religious or political beliefs. Does anyone think that the numbers would be dramatically different if you privately surveyed the NHL players.

I understand why the NHL wants to use their players but do the players themselves have a voice in these decisions. Individual players may feel pressured to conform. It is hard to imagine in a league of 700 or so players, that only 4 or 5 express misgivings about wearing a pride jersey in warm-up.

I am hoping to convey that the individual must have the freedom to say no to these social movements without any fear of retribution. I realize I am being naïve to think that in today’s toxic social media environment they will not be keyboard outrage.

There are certain expectations placed upon employees. Show up to work to be paid seems the obvious, perform to a standard would be another. But when you go beyond that, as I believe the NHL did, you are overextending the employer power beyond what I feel should be allowed.

A player who has been in the league (pick a sport) for ten years has a much different power dynamic then a rookie on their first contract. Would the rookie feel they have the freedom to say no to wearing the jersey? Now they may freely want to participate but statistically it would be a stretch to believe that every NHL player is on board with this method of showing support for marginalized groups.

I do not see why this approach if accepted cannot be pushed out to the wider community. Can it happen to Debbie at Wendy’s or Tony at Canadian Tire? Do employers have the right to impose a social policy on employees regardless of what that policy may be? And if I Jim Mauro, business owner believes it is worthwhile, is that enough for me to tell people what they need to wear, or how they need to act?

Before the screams of intolerance are thrown my way, let me give you a quick background. When I was 24, one of my best friends killed himself. He was gay. I think about him all the time. My son belongs to this targeted group, and I have other family in this group as well. I will call out hatred and targeting when I see it against marginalized people. Again, my concern is about the process, not inclusion itself.

When I spoke to my son he hesitated in his endorsement of this policy because he feels that people should not be forced to do something they do not want to do. It is clear from the reaction of some players, that not everyone agrees with the policy.

There are alternatives. The NHL can sell pride merchandise, put up banners, or ask players to record public service announcements. They can hand out pride banners to every fan, place logos around the boards, have the opening ceremonies dedicated to the cause or each team could pay for advertising that targets this issue. All of this can be done without putting, one, 10, or 100 players in an uncomfortable position of agreeing or becoming a story they do not want to be part of.

The goal of inclusion does not relapse if the players are not wearing jerseys. If it is about the sweaters themselves why not make the NHL logo on each players jersey use the pride colours for the month and take out the individual need for the players to go along. I think dedicating one night for the whole league, when the league has the most games being played, could be an effective show of inclusions. Each team at their home game every other year. That to me would be a far more effective message.

I spoke earlier about how I feel this “employer driven process” can be used elsewhere. My son used to work for Aveda salons. During Earth Month, all staff had to wear a shirt promoting this cause. Except the employees themselves had to buy the shirt, not exactly a voluntary process. So, when is it okay to have your employees move outside the job they are hired for and be activists for a cause.

Individual choice is vital in a democratic society. When it is removed, the “slippery slope” analogy may not be far off. Some may say the players had the freedom of choice. I would argue that four or five players out of seven hundred, is a statistical improbability that strongly suggests that many felt it necessary to conform. Given that several teams now for various reasons are not doing warm-ups with pride jersey’s, the NHL objective of a seamless support strategy seems to have missed the mark.

I find it difficult to have these conversations because too often, those on the side of the issue say people like me are the problem because we do not agree with the entire position. That if we are not 100% on board, we are transphobic, or bias or as one person told me, “I need a bit more education”.

The condemnation of anyone that does not agree fully with any agenda, does not enhance support for the cause, it only jeopardizes it. Not everyone who is gay thinks the wearing of Pride jersey’s moves the needle forward or by not wearing them, it endangers the movement.

I support many of the goals of marginalized groups, but I don’t always agree with the path chosen. Are people free to have that opinion without fear of facing accusations of bias or discrimination? When a player takes the position that he/she is not going to wear the jersey, it brings more attention to the issue, it makes other players feel the need to comment and a seamless show of support is lost. I think my suggestions eliminate that risk. Even the NHL is reconsidering whether to continue with this initiative. It seems apparent that this was not exactly rolled out with flawless precision. On this issue, the NHL had a wide open net, and missed.

One former NHL player appears to agree with me.

Yahoo sports Canada covered this story and writer Jori Negin-Shecter quoted former NHL defenceman P.K. Subban who made the following comments: “We cannot push everyone to be an activist, we need to be very careful,” Subban told Reuters on Friday. “I feel people pick and choose what they want to talk about, and I don’t like it when we put the onus on athletes to be activists.”

“They don’t need to be activists. I’m not saying it is right or wrong to wear the (Pride) jersey, we have just got to be very careful how we push players to do things,” he said. “You can support the LGBTQ community without having to wear a hat, a t-shirt or a jersey.”

Speaking as an ambassador for the Kraft Hockeyville program, which announced its winner on Saturday night, Subban reportedly rejected the notion that minorities and marginalized individuals may feel unwelcome watching NHLers refuse to support Pride night initiatives, including donning Pride jerseys in warm-up.

We have moved a great deal towards inclusion in a short time. Is there more to do, of course but that doesn’t mean that the end is near if two, five or 100 hockey players do not wear a pride jersey. Do not let a momentary blip on the radar screen take you off course and into the quagmire known as social media outrage. But the accusations of intolerance against these players came anyway, didn’t it? We do not have to agree with their decision, we certainly do not need to agree with the justifications for their decision, but all of us must support their freedom to make it.

That is my main point, that in our society, people should not have to justify the why. They made a choice, and it is not up to me, you, or anyone to think others do not have the freedom to make it. They may pay a social or personal price for their decision but not everything you disagree with must come with a pound of flesh from the person you are outraged at.

Everyone with a keyboard has an opinion on what is and what is not allowed but neither you or I get to decide what is and what is not acceptable. You do not get to dictate speech, beliefs, or acts that are not breaching any law. A democracy means I get to offend you with my words, and you get to disagree and offend me back.

Many young people I have spoken with cannot conceptualize the importance of free speech. A survey in the United States of young people found the majority have no concern with newspapers having their articles pre-approved by the government before they are printed. Think about that for a moment and be scared that these people might obtain political power in the future. Comedians are asked to sanitize their shows before appearing on college campuses in the States out of fear someone might be offended. George Carlin, we need you.

Do I like the NHL demonstrating tolerance, of course. Count me in that all sports do their part to make people feel more included as fans, players, coaches or even commentators. Do I wish this support was no longer necessary, yes. But I believe that making people feel that they must “go along” or that their choice has been removed can be a dangerous path to take.

Disagreeing with the views of others will continue forever. That is a good thing because having differing points of view often leads to progress. And at the end of the day, that is what most of us are interested in, isn’t it. Progress on these important social issues. How we get there should always be open for discussion. Just a thought.

Jim Mauro


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all NetNewsLedger columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of NetNewsLedger.

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