If you've been following either of my Twitter accounts over the last few days, you've noticed I've been nothing short of a major pain in the ass to many hockey media people regarding the recent Krys Barch incident in which the Panthers player allegedly used a racial slur. My talking point has been the vastly disproportionate responses to Barch's (at this point unconfirmed) transgressions, and those of Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds (who called a player a faggot - 'confirmed' only by video and lip reading) earlier this season, asking the question; "If the NHL punishes Barch after not punishing Simmonds with similar evidence in both cases, does it come off as weak on homophobia versus racism?"
The obvious answer is yes, and you could argue that since racial slurs perk an official's ears (the basis for Barch's hearing on Tuesday) and homophobic slurs do not (the reason Simmonds was not disciplined is that no official could remember what he said) already makes the entire situation troubling.
Fortunately in this day and age, lines of communication are almost always open, so I started asking the above questions to every hockey media personality I could think of. The response was...underwhelming. Only three replied out of maybe fifteen and the responses were the sort of generic condemnation of hatred you'd expect from people who are used to being politically correct for a living. And they're not wrong, slurs, regardless of their nature can be very hurtful, but that wasn't enough for me.
My interpretation of the events was an overall unwillingness to tackle a topic that involves Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered individuals and their presence in the sports world. There has long been a sort of Don't Ask, Don't Tell attitude towards gay athletes. People seem, for the most part, okay with the concept and the possibility, so long as they're not forced to deal with or address it. Which is sad because as the late Brendan Burke showed, those confrontations can wind up being overwhelmingly positive and a massive step forward.
So I did what I tend to do, I didn't shut up and pressed the issue, perhaps playing dirty pool in my framing of the discussion. (Because they've never done that when interviewing athletes after games.) Then the responses came. Most of it was self defense, justifying inaction by claiming that the facts are currently lacking in the Barch case, which is true, but I think irrelevant. As I've said, that officials are sensitive to one type of slur and not another already indicates that there is a problem. A suspension for Barch where there was none for Simmonds only magnifies it.
But now we're at a point where people have LGBT issues on their mind, which is a good thing. It's one step ahead of where we were previously, though several behind where we eventually want to be. That we can get an older generation of media talking about this sort of thing is perhaps impressive in itself. As much as some of them may be sympathetic (or LGBT individuals themselves), LGBT rights is the cause of our generation, not theirs. As more of us rise in the ranks of media to replace more of them, I can only imagine that, like many things, It will get better.
Ten years ago, the use of the word "faggot" wouldn't have raised any eyebrows. Now it has raised a few, and I'm committed to making it raise a few more. The NHL needs to get behind LGBT issues; it cannot afford to lag behind like it did on integration. There is still too much homophobia in sports for LGBT athletes to feel safe in locker rooms, and LGBT fans to feel safe in Arenas and Stadiums. But we're getting there.