The You Can Play Project (YCP) is an organization that promotes the inclusion of LGBTQ+ athletes in sport. It seeks to mitigate the possible negative aspects of locker room culture such as anti-gay attitudes and language. It was founded in 2012 by Patrick Burke, Glenn Whitman, and Brian Kitts following the death of Patrick’s brother, Brendan, who was an openly gay ice hockey player. The Burke family is well known in the hockey community since Patrick works in Player Safety for the National Hockey League (NHL) and his father, Brian, is currently the President of Hockey Operations for the Calgary Flames. The Burkes wanted to honour Brendan by advocating on his behalf for equality among athletes regardless of their gender or sexual identity. While most visible in hockey, YCP works with a range of sports and athletic organizations from high school to college and university to the amateur and professional ranks.
As YCP grew in popularity, it became evident that more could be done to transcend the act of raising awareness and extend efforts to examine the state of inclusion in sport in order to determine how to better serve LGBTQ+ athletes. The organization thus partnered with the Institute of Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, to create a postdoctoral position meant to fulfill this goal. The Institute is also known for its collaboration with Calder Bateman Communications Ltd. in the invention of Pride Tape, the rainbow coloured hockey tape that is sold in part to fund YCP. As it turns out, I, the author of this article, was selected for the position. My doctoral work examined attitudes towards homosexuality among male youth elite ice hockey players, and I often referenced YCP, so the position was an ideal next step for me. The aim of this article is to two-fold: I will discuss the uniqueness of my position as it bridges academia and community outreach and then discuss the effectiveness of inclusion initiatives in ice hockey.
In accordance with the partnership between YCP and the Institute, I was made an official YCP Ambassador. In that role, my initial job was to organize fundraising events for YCP and give informational presentations on the acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ+ athletes in sport. I still do the work of an Ambassador, but I am now co-chair of the Western Canadian board, which means that I am a point of contact for other Ambassadors who want to be connected to certain people or throw around ideas for fundraising and presentations. At the same time, I am devising a study that will allow me to continue to examine elite male ice hockey players’ attitudes towards the queer community in the context of their sport. It is motivated in part by the fact that there are currently no openly gay men in the NHL despite the efforts of organizations such as YCP. I am able to combine my two roles in a number of ways. For instance, I am able to use my research to complement the standard YCP informational presentations since I have empirical evidence of how something like homophobia functions in the sporting world. I also participated in the press conference for the Edmonton Oilers You Can Play Night, an event meant to support the inclusion of LGBTQ+ athletes. The press conference acted as a substantive public platform on which I could discuss the importance of my research in relation to YCP’s efforts. This postdoctoral fellowship is symbolic of the broader trend in academia to examine employment options outside of colleges and universities since, in my field, tenure track jobs do not exist in proportion to the degrees required to hold them. In this position, I am able to maintain my academic trajectory (including teaching) while also getting a taste of what it is like to use my skills elsewhere.
The question I am frequently asked about my research and my role with YCP is the following: is the hockey community actually becoming more inclusive or are things like Pride Tape and You Can Play Nights an insincere mix of lip service and PR stunts? This is a valid question given the lack of openly gay players in the NHL and the deeply rooted heterosexism (the assumption that everyone is straight) that characterizes boys’ and men’s hockey. I hold that both Pride Tape and the You Can Play Project are necessary initiatives for building inclusive sporting communities. Both have been effective in raising awareness regarding the importance of queer community rights in sport and both have been vessels through which role models such as Olympians and professional athletes can communicate to others that everyone has the right to feel safe while participating in their sport. With that said, it is not lost on me that using Pride Tape does not necessarily translate into egalitarian attitudes. We know from the work of social scientist Samantha King—specifically her book, Pink Ribbons Inc. (2006)—that initiatives like the NFL’s breast cancer campaign can have underlying agendas aimed at reducing or detracting from social fears associated with violence against women, for example. I would argue that hockey is no different in that it encourages homophobia among boys and men.
My research with male youth ice hockey players (you can read about it on Hockey In Society blog by clicking here) shows that some still have negative attitudes towards homosexuality. Through surveys, interviews, and a social media analysis with approximately 100 participants between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, I determined that some players were wary of homosexuality because they did not really know anything about it. Others assumed that they would attract unwanted attention from a gay teammate in the shower. In some cases, players who would otherwise be supportive of an openly gay teammate chose to keep their opinions to themselves for fear of being excluded or belittled by those who disagreed. With that said, players were cognizant of the fact that, as a group, they were more accepting of sexual and gender diversity than some of their parents. This suggests that social change is palpable in the elite hockey community, although evidently not enough for players to feel completely safe coming out all the time. Does this mean that the NHL is attempting to quell public concerns over homophobia? To some extent, I believe so insofar as there is pressure on the hockey community to pull up its socks and be inclusive when it does not yet have all the tools to do so in a meaningful way. But that certainly does not mean that Pride Tape and YCP are without value and that boys’ and men’s ice hockey is still as dangerously homophobic and virulently hypermasculine as it once was. Change may be slow coming, but without prominent shows of solidarity and role models, combined with scholarly inquiries that seek to determine the best ways to educate the community, there would be no change at all.
Cheryl MacDonald is a postdoctoral fellow in the faculty of Education at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. She holds a PhD in Social and Cultural Analysis from Concordia University in Montreal and has built up a streamlined dossier of research on masculinity and ice hockey in Canada over the past eight years. Her institutional biography can be accessed by clicking here and she can be found on Twitter @cheymacdonald.