By David “Dirk” Smith, M.Sc., SDL (He/Him)

The LGBTQ+ community has not been happy with the National Hockey League (NHL) as of late, and I am sure you are asking “what’s the drama now?”. Well, let me tell you, it seems like every week I log on, there’s another post from Outsports, Athlete Ally or another organization commenting on “latest NHL team/player on their failed Pride Night”. It’s becoming a recurring trend that is a symptom of a greater issue that the NHL is facing.

The rift between the NHL and the LGBTQ+ community really didn’t start that long ago, NHL teams in the past have hosted Pride Nights without drama or controversy, so seemingly they proceeded into this season planning the same thing. Except that while the NHL itself sees the pink dollar signs, they are failing to get the athletes and teams themselves behind the message of what Pride Night is supposed to be about.

This all started with a player named Ivan Provorov, a defenseman for the Philadelphia Flyers who refused to wear a rainbow pride jersey during warm ups as part of the team’s pride night. Provorv cited his religious beliefs for his reasoning to not wear the jersey and was supported by the Flyer’s coach, John Torotorella.

While the Flyer’s released a statement in response, it avoided the whole thing all together. Instead it stuck with the usual canned message of inclusivity and what not. The NHL itself released a statement stating that players themselves have autonomy to decide which initiatives to support and “we continue to encourage their voices and perspectives on social and cultural issues.” The incident itself drew criticism for both Provorv and the club from the LGBTQ+ community, but by itself hasn’t been much of a big deal.

Roughly one week later, however another incident occurred with more aggressive anti-LGBTQ+ remarks occurred with one of the NHL’s minor league teams. Louie Rowe who was a player for the Peoria Rivermen, a team under the ECHL which is one of only two (the other being AHL) with a collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players Association, making the ECHL an NHL minor league team. Lowe had made anti-LGBTQ+ posts on social media targeted at another team, the Kalamazoo Rings who had been planning their own Pride Night. A Twitter exchanged ensued where Lowe doubled down and as a result, was released from the Rivermen as the team made a statement to distance themselves from Lowe’s bigotry.

“Our organization does not condone that language, nor do we support that point of view or behavior,” said Rivermen co-owner Bart Rogers. “Those things do not represent the beliefs of our team, our partners nor our fans, nor the great sport we play. It does not represent the values of our organization.”

While this occurred purely from a minor league team only loosely connected to the NHL and ended with the player being dumped by the team. Within the last week or two, two separate NHL teams hosting Pride Nights, the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders both had their entire times refusing to wear rainbow jerseys or put rainbow tape on their hockey sticks, despite such actions being advertised by the teams themselves as part of the Pride Night events. This issue was not at all helped when NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman, sidelined the entire issue, invalidating the LGBTQ+ community’s criticism of the acts that were falsely advertised.

The clear disconnect here is that the NHL as a whole and their teams are more than willing to paint their arenas in rainbows and sell marked up tickets to LGBTQ+ fans under the guise of “diversity” and “inclusion” while refusing to actually be “diverse” and “inclusive” as an organization. It is nothing more than rainbow washing at its most superficial.

While I will agree that the individual players do have a right to choose how they express themselves in regard to wearing things like rainbow jerseys and what not. The refusal of players and entire teams to do so, despite promises in advertising, is a symptom of a greater issue that the NHL themselves either is ignorant of, or completely refuses to understand. The values of “diversity” and “inclusion” are not reflected within the NHL nor their team’s own values as an organization. As in there is no representation of diversity and inclusion, there is no education or training, there is no effort by the NHL or it’s teams to embody what it means to *be* diverse and inclusive. The players themselves are being criticized for the shortcomings of the entire organization like trimming the branches off a dead tree.

To be diverse and inclusive in sports doesn’t mean to wear rainbow jerseys, make empty statements, or light up your arenas in rainbows. Yet, that’s only as far as the NHL seems to go when it comes to their perception of diversity and inclusion. The players refusal to wear these rainbow jerseys shows us, the LGBTQ+ community that the NHL has taken little to no action to understand, learn from or make any efforts to support the LGBTQ+ community, especially when it comes to understanding and embodying what being “diverse and inclusive” truly means. The perception/action gap of the NHL’s diversity and inclusion efforts, along with its relationship with the LGBTQ+ community are growing wider than [insert gay joke here].

By contrast, the NFL, for which none of their teams have ever hosted a Pride Night, has never painted their stadiums in rainbows under the guise of “diversity” and “inclusion”, nor have forced their teams to wear rainbow jerseys. Yet, the NFL has shown itself, through action, to be an organization that has truly embodied what it means to be “diverse” and “inclusive”.

How? You may be wondering.

The NFL has made a proactive effort to engage with the LGBTQ+ community. The organization itself as well as the teams have connected with sports diversity leaders in cities across the country. Inviting those leaders to meet, make presentations, conduct workshops, and help the staff and athletes of these teams learn about why diversity, equity, and inclusion matters. In turn, the NFL and their teams have supported and sponsored the development of LGBTQ+ sports teams, organizations, leagues, tournaments, and other areas of their local LGBTQ+ communities to help foster growth. The NFL and their teams have participated in local LGBTQ+ pride parades, connected with LGBTQ+ organizations and sports teams, even sponsored events like Gay Bowl and the Compete Sports Diversity Summits.

When it comes to participation in LGBTQ+ events, the NFL supports player autonomy. The players are not required to march in pride parades or wear rainbow shirts with the team’s logos, but yet, those players choose to do so and the ones who don’t, aren’t called out and criticized, because ultimately that doesn’t help the cause, nor does it change anybody’s mind. No, the work is through willful education and training within the organization itself to embody was being diverse and inclusive means. By instilling these as important values of the organization, then everybody who is involved with the NFL, from players, coaches, executives, sponsors, and up all learn and understand the importance of it and learn to embody it within their own value system. Meaning these teams and players who are out there wearing rainbows, taking part in pride parades, supporting LGBTQ+ sports teams and more, are doing so because they learn and understand those values as part of their own too. There’s no rainbow washing at the NFL because they’re not trying to convince anybody, they are simply being diverse and inclusive.

If the NHL has anything to learn about this whole debacle, it’s that you cannot convince anybody you are truly “diverse and inclusive” if you cannot even embody those values within your organization itself. No, you cannot point to your only openly gay player, Luke Prokop as an example, he is not a token, and he does not deserve the burden of an entire professional sports league’s DEI efforts to fall on his shoulders. If you can’t have your own players and coaches support you in these efforts, then how do you expect to build a relationship with the LGBTQ+ community? Rather than painting your arenas in rainbows, take the time to learn from your fellow professional sports organizations how to truly support your local LGBTQ+ community rather than scraping for the almighty pink dollar.

Photo by Ryan Tanner via Wikimedia Commons