The Red Wings should expand support for the You Can Play project

When I am not writing about the Red Wings for this site, I am a high school English teacher in northern New Jersey. I've been spending ten months of the year with teenagers for at least eight hours a day for seven years, so I've seen a great deal. I've seen lives both destroyed and healed, accidentally and on purpose. I've seen words visibly deflate a hopeful soul, and I've seen actions rebuild a broken one.

My thesis in this article is simple: The Red Wings should take a more active role in the You Can Play project and follow in the footsteps of Nelson Rodriguez, the GM of Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire. In case you missed it, Rodriguez told fans who insisted on continuing homophobic chants that they should "find another team to support."

To be clear, I am not saying that Red Wings fans are engaging in similar chants to those in the MLS recently. I’m saying that I would hope the team would respond in the same manner as Rodriguez if a similar situation would happen.

Before I continue, I know that the topic of this article has the potential to raise many side arguments in the comments. I am also aware that recent news events have attached political angles to some aspects of this topic.

I believe that sports is an arena in which people of all views can come together for a common purpose--to root for a team to win. Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, Independent, we are all on team Detroit.

I decided to tell my own personal journey on the topic, from what I used to think to what I think now. If at the end, you disagree with me, that's fine. My goal here is to raise the questions and hopefully have people genuinely think about their answers.

My experience

I was in high school in the late nineties. At that time, it was rare, at least where I grew up, for people to be "out" as a gay man or woman. I didn't know anyone who was gay, so I didn't think anything of it when people would use homophobic language. I played soccer, and many of us, including me, didn't think twice about using those types of words to mock our friends and teammates.

Not a big deal, right? It's not like we were targeting someone, just kids being kids.

A few years ago, I reconnected with a friend and teammate, with whom I played on soccer teams for a decade. In his Facebook profile, he mentioned his boyfriend.


I keep in touch with many of my former students after they graduate. After the Orlando nightclub shooting, many people felt a need to be open about themselves. That week, I learned that at least five of my former students were gay. I would have never guessed that any of them were.

I learned over the years that words matter, one's intention are far less important than the actual effect, and we don’t always know everything about a person, even our friends.

I learned that using those words made no sense because if the intention was to use the word "gay" or its associated slurs as a general term for something negative (since they are never used in that context to mean something positive), the English language is filled with other words. If they are just words, then surely choosing another word will not make any difference, right?

It’s gotten better even in the seven years I’ve been teaching, but it’s still sadly common to hear “gay” and associated slurs used to describe something negative. It has to be hard to hear a core aspect of one’s self be used as a pejorative word day after day after week after month after year. It must be exhausting.

Like I said above, I can’t remember hearing of issues at Joe Louis Arena like have been reported in other arenas. Unfortunately, I can state for a fact that homophobic chants do happen in NHL arenas because when I was younger, I was involved in some. I’m embarrassed to admit that, but I feel it is important to be honest. I’d feel strange about being critical of actions without admitting that I used to act that way myself.

I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. I know how easy it is to not examine one’s words and actions. I also know what it’s like to change one’s view to the point that my classroom is a safe place for all my students. We can’t change the past, but we can work towards a better future.

Why it matters

For me, the answer is pretty simple.

  1. Statistically, the chances that there isn’t currently a gay NHL player are very low. Using the 2013 NIH stats of 1.6% identifying as gay or lesbian (not even taking into account “bisexual” or ”other”), would give 11 gay players on NHL active rosters. Of course, it’s not that simple, but it would be hard to argue that the population of the NHL is so different that the number is zero.
  2. Sooner rather than later, there will be an openly gay NHL player. Call it a generational shift or a cultural shift, but whatever the reason it’s a question of “when” not “if.”
  3. When it happens, it will be a big story, regardless of the reaction. The media will always write about something new.
  4. What people can help control is how long it’s a big story. Look back to how big a story it was when Ellen DeGeneres came out. It was front page news, on every magazine cover, etc. But now, celebrities come out all the time. It’s not that it doesn’t matter, it’s that it’s a much shorter story.

That’s where the You Can Play Project comes in. According to the organization’s website, their mission is:

You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, and only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success.

You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.

One of the most public avenues the project uses is hosting videos made by players and teams publicly supporting YCP’s mission. Here’s one from Minnesota from last season:

High schools all across the country have gay-straight alliances with the same mission. Students help their classmates feel safe to be themselves without being bullied and harassed. Unfortunately, as seen by too many news reports, we still have a ways to go, but these clubs are a step in the right direction.

As of January 8, 2014, every NHL team had publicly supported the project. Last year, six teams released videos in support of the project.

Allies in the locker room will make it easier for their teammates to be themselves. And when that first player comes out, if he’s supported by his teammates and the league, it makes it easier for the next one, and so on, until it’s no longer a story.

And that’s just what the gay player wants. To just be another player, while also not having to hide who he is.

NHL and the You Can Play project

I reached out to the You Can Play project PR department and Wade Davis, their executive director and a gay former NFL player. I asked what the YCP project was doing behind the scenes with NHL teams. I made initial contact with Davis, but as of this article’s publication, I have not received answers to my questions. If he does reply, I will either update this article or write a follow-up.

The “Coward” article

One of the events that motivated me to finally finish this article was an article in the Washington Blade that made waves on Twitter two weeks ago, entitled: ‘They’re cowards’ — gay athletes still refuse to come out

The inflammatory headline comes courtesy of a quote from Cyd Siegler, the co-founder and co-editor of LGBTQ site Outsports. While I don’t feel the context of the quote makes his statement better, here is the full section from the article:

“Tomorrow somebody could decide to come out or could be caught literally with his pants down,” Ziegler told the Blade. “All professional sports leagues are quote-unquote ready for an out player. But the gay athletes are just afraid. They’re cowards.”

He added, “The definition of a coward is somebody who lets fear govern his actions. And the gay athletes in the major men’s professional sports today are cowards. And even worse than the athletes that are active in sports are the dozens or hundreds of gay athletes who are retired who won’t come out,” he said.

“I mean, they have nothing to lose in the sports world. And for them to not come out really shows the disdain for the mental health of America’s youth,” especially LGBT youth who look to professional athletes as role models, Ziegler said.

Ziegler’s hyperbolic tone hurts more than it helps here. He has two good points here, but they are buried by the inflammatory and divisive language.

Point 1: Having former professional athletes publicly identify as LGBTQ will make it easier for the current generation of athletes to do so.

Point 2: Young LGBTQ athletes (and people) need role models to look up to. Role models a young person can identify with are important. When Givani Smith was drafted this year, he said he modeled his game off of Wayne Simmonds. Not too long ago, young Smith wouldn’t have seen too many, if any NHL players who looked like him. Now, of course role models do not need to look like you or share a common trait with you to be influential, but there is a lot to be said for a young person seeing someone they feel is “like me” achieve their dream.

Current LGBTQ professional athletes are obviously fearful of the cost of their coming out, but to refer to them as “cowards” is counterproductive in the extreme.

In that same article, Wade Davis replied to Ziegler’s comments with this:

“And what most people don’t understand – I have talked to a lot of closeted players,” Davis said. “And they will tell you as soon as you come out as an openly gay player in a sport you become just that…The focus would be on whether or not this gay person can survive in the locker room,” Davis continued.

Why it matters - redux

And this is what I was talking about in the “Why it Matters” segment above. While each athlete has his or her own reasons for not being open about their sexuality, Davis, someone who works closely with LGBTQ athletes, points to the difficulty for an athlete to deal with the media firestorm while continuing to contribute to their team.

One player will. And when he does, I’ll be rooting for him regardless of team (unless his team is playing Detroit, of course). Because he’s going to make a sacrifice that will lead to a better NHL. But he doesn’t have to stand alone.

Next steps

We reached out to the Red Wings to see what they are planning to do in continued support of the You Can Play project. I wanted to know if they are planning on doing anything publicly, like having players record a video or something similar. I also asked what they do behind the scenes in support of the project that we wouldn’t see. Here’s their response:

“The Detroit Red Wings community relations department met with You Can Play this summer to discuss best practices among the teams that participate. The department is currently assessing a broad range of community engagement opportunities for this upcoming season, as well as scheduling personal charitable discussions with each player to identify causes and organizations they are passionate about. As our players serve a vital role in all community outreach elements, charitable/community programming will not be finalized until closer to the season.”

It’s too early to tell what will happen this season, so I will withhold judgment for now, but it doesn’t sound like there is anything planned, at least yet. I want to see both the NHL and the Red Wings take a giant step forward in their public support for the You Can Play project.

Sometime in the near future, when the first gay NHL player comes out, the entire league fan base will play an active role in how he is treated. We will collectively have a chance to make a positive difference in the world, which doesn’t come along that often. I will be doing my best to seize it.

I hope to see you there.