A government teacher I worked with last fall has a saying he uses when teaching the First Amendment and the concept of free speech: “Your right to free speech extends as far as my nose”, meaning that someone’s personal right to free speech only lasts up to the point that it begins infringing on the rights of others.
Sunday at CONSOL Energy Center, a few Flyers fans attending the back end of the Penguins/Flyers home-and-home stepped over that line, arriving in jerseys personalized to say “Malkin Blows”, “Crosby Sucks”, and “Neal Swallows.” They were approached by CONSOL security almost immediately and asked to either remove the jerseys or leave the premises. They complied, opting to turn the jerseys inside out, but didn’t quite understand the problem.
That, in itself, is the problem.
The hockey world loves to talk about You Can Play, how it started here, proudly quoting statistics that say 92% of NHLers would support a gay teammate as if that automatically makes hockey more progressive than other sports. But when fans use insinuations of homosexual behavior to insult a player, it sends the exact opposite message.
I’m honestly at a loss as to why the appropriateness of this kind of behavior is still in question. If the message on these jerseys had been racist, rather than homophobic, would we even be having this conversation? The fans who wore the censored jerseys to CONSOL remarked that they’d worn them to games in Philadelphia and New Jersey without incident. Would that have been the case if they’d been Devils or Penguins fans in a Simmonds or Emery jersey personalized with a racial slur?
I hope we’re all aware that the answer to that question is “no”.
In discussion of the incident, there have been people claiming this kind of behavior and language doesn’t bother them because they were “raised in the nosebleeds” and therefore exposed to that kind of thing early and often.
Let me tell you something, son – I was raised in the South, and that dog don’t hunt.
I was exposed to racism early and often, both casual and blatant, and that’s made me used to it and, in fact, at times nearly blind to it. Does that make it acceptable for me to brush off or excuse racist behavior that I may witness simply because I’m “used to it”?
Are we going to walk the walk with YCP? Lip service accomplishes nothing. How can we, as hockey fans, claim to support an organization whose founding purpose is working to eliminate homophobic behavior among athletes, and then turn a blind or dismissive eye when we encounter that exact behavior in the stands?
And let’s take it a step farther. Why are we still excusing sexist remarks like “Cindy Crosby” or “the Sedin sisters’? The Clarkson Cup – the CWHL Championship – is taking place in Markham, Ontario right now. I challenge anyone to watch these amazing, fierce, talented women play one game and then come back and use “playing like a girl” or calling someone “princess” as an insult.
If you want the league to be more popular, if you want to grow this sport, it might be beneficial to not alienate large sections of the market by silently (or not-so-silently) condoning hate speech, be it homophobic, sexist, or otherwise.
We’re better than this kind of behavior, hockey fans.
And other fans, and potential fans, deserve better.