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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Puck Starts Here

Washington Capitals fans are in the all-too familiar position of witnessing our beloved team being eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. But unexpected news during this playoff season has diverted our attention away from the disappointment with the Caps to the quest for marriage equality, particularly in New York State.

Sean Avery, a left wing (hockey position) in his fifth season with the New York Rangers has come out for marriage equality. Avery, a straight, fashion-conscious 31 year-old, has partnered with the Human Rights Campaign to appear in a video for its “New Yorkers for Marriage Equality” campaign. It can be viewed here .

"Sean Avery knows what it means to be a leader - on and off the ice,” said HRC Senior New York Strategist Brian Ellner. “As the first professional athlete in the state to publically support marriage equality, his voice is sure to resonate. Like a majority of New Yorkers, he believes in the freedom of all loving, committed couples to marry."

Sean Avery, however, is one of the most reviled players in the National Hockey League by his peers. He is known as an agitator on the ice whose primary mission is to get under the skin of the opponents. Avery has made some off-color comments that netted him a lengthy suspension, and he has twice led the league in penalty minutes. Fans of other teams despise him even more.

So when a bespectacled Avery, a Canadian, states in the 30-second video, “I treat everyone the way I expect to be treated, and that applies to marriage,” eyebrows were raised. Cynics could rightfully ask, “What does he have to lose? He’s hated anyway.” In the video Avery adds, "Committed couples should be able to marry the person they love. Join me in supporting marriage equality."

In a phone interview with the New York Times, Avery explained, "The places I've played and lived the longest have been in West Hollywood, Calif., when I played for the Los Angeles Kings, and when I moved to New York, I lived in Chelsea for the first four years. I certainly have been surrounded by the gay community. And living in New York and when you live in L.A., you certainly have a lot of gay friends."

Sure, it would be great if some iconic, transcendent figure in the world of professional sports could be a spokesperson for LGBT equality rather than one with a negative image. Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Emmett Smith and Cal Ripken, Jr.—widely popular figures—would have more influence, to be sure, as they are heroes and role models. But we must take what we can get in this macho-obsessed, testosterone-laden industry, and Sean Avery should receive applause for this courageous step. [Note that Baltimore Ravens’ Brendan Ayanbadejo spoke out for marriage equality in the Huffington Post and is working with Equality Maryland to advance the cause.]

But in this case, it was the message (marriage equality) that resonated and not necessarily the messenger (Avery). When Todd Reynolds, vice-president of Uptown Hockey, a management group (agent), 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, hockey fans rallied to Avery’s defense in droves.

Reynolds went on to clarify in subsequent tweets that his comments did not reflect hatred, bigotry or intolerance towards gays; he just believes in the sanctity of marriage. The controversy continued, nonetheless. Canadian sports reporter, Damian Goddard, was fired for his tweet-based support of Reynolds.

I’ve always believed that if a current gay male professional athlete were to come out, hockey would be the most likely sport. There is a higher percentage of Europeans and Canadians in the National Hockey League than any of the other three major pro sports leagues in the U.S. As such, there would probably be less gay hang-ups among players with those backgrounds.

Then you also have the cities where NHL games are played: New York, Montreal, Washington, Toronto, Vancouver, Boston, Atlanta, South Florida, LA, Chicago, etc.— hotbeds for LGBT folks. Public reaction and team management would likely be supportive.

I spoke with a former Washington Capitals player, who is Canadian, and asked him if the NHL would accept an openly gay player. He said that “the players would do the politically correct thing” at least in public. That’s promising.

When Brendan Burke, 21, a former hockey goalie and student manager of the Miami (Ohio) University ice hockey team and son of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke came out as gay in November 2009, there was also a flood of international support by news outlets and fans. Brendan advocated tolerance and spoke out against homophobia in professional sports.

His father, who was also the GM for the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team in Vancouver, issued a statement: “I had a million good reasons to love and admire Brendan. This news didn’t alter any of them… There are gay men in professional hockey. We would be fools to think otherwise. And it’s sad that they feel the need to conceal this. I understand why they do so, however… Since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe! I simply could not be more proud of Brendan than I am, and I love him as much as I admire him.” Tragically, young Brendan Burke was killed in a car accident two months later.

Brendan and Brian Burke, Sean Avery, Brendan Ayanbadejo (and most recently Donte Stallworth of the Ravens), the NBA’s Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, and former NBA star Charles Barkley and others deserve a standing ‘O’ for what they have done for gay rights. And other allies like former U. of Maryland wrestler Hudson Taylor, whose organization Athlete Ally is challenging homophobia in sports, will help make gay athletes more likely to come out and advance equality in the process.


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