You Can Play…Or Can You?: Homophobia in UK Hockey, And Why The EIHL Needs To Act

If you’ve been around hockey the past few years, you can’t have failed to notice the impact had by You Can Play.

An organisation set up by Philadelphia scout Patrick Burke and his father, Calgary Flames GM Brian, in memory of family member Brendan Burke to promote LGBT inclusion in sport and combat homophobia, it’s gone from an idea to commemorate a beloved family member to one of the premier campaigning organisations for inclusivity in sport…a powerhouse supported by the major sports leagues in North America, national team organisations across the States and in the process has become the go-to advocate for LGBT rights in sport.

Its YCP Project has one simple message-that gender and sexual orientation should have no impact on how sportspeople or those watching them are seen. It’s taken several high-profile cases where athletes have been caught using homophobic language and turned them into teaching moments for North American sport, using viral videos from teams and players and signing up some of the biggest players in sports as advocates to spread a simple message.

Sport is for everyone, whatever your gender or sexual orientation.

Hockey in North America has been one of the most fervent supporters of this movement-perhaps unsurprising since the whole initiative was founded by major hockey figures. In its nearly-three-year existence YCP has made great strides in trying to change the stereotypical “macho” culture of hockey and make NHL hockey arenas and North American rinks a place where LGBT people can feel accepted and safe from the discrimination many still suffer.

However, in the UK, it seems that despite the EIHL’s constant emphasis on hockey being a “family sport” and trying to push the inclusiveness of hockey compared to other sports, homophobia is still an issue that EIHL clubs would prefer simply didn’t exist.

Last night at the Sheffield-Hull game, there were widespread reports on Twitter of homophobic abuse being openly shouted at an injured Stingrays player by Sheffield “fans”…despite repeated requests via Twitter for the Steelers to at least say something about it nothing has happened yet. This, following upon the repeated sexist and racist comments made in the past by a Sheffield club official, is something that once again puts the team in a poor light, since it appears they’ll happily tolerate homophobic abuse in their rink. They’ve been tweeting throughout the day but it appears they’ve decided not to mention the incident. Compare this with the way most football teams react to even isolated reports of offensive chanting nowadays.

Sadly, though, homophobia is not just a Sheffield problem-it appears to be one that EIHL clubs and indeed many EIHL fans simply don’t notice…you only have to look at EIHL fan Twitter on a game night or stand in any rink in the UK, and there’s a chance you’ll hear some form of homophobia at some point in the night, even if it’s just the use of the word “faggot” as an insult.

The EIHL has been offered the chance to join the You Can Play initiative-both Sheffield and Coventry, for example, have been approached in the past by fans asking if they could join the stand against homophobia. Neither have. EIHL team officials have cited fears of “players getting abuse on the rink by opponents” or “players being uncomfortable” to me as reasons for not supporting inclusion of LGBT people in hockey. Which frankly is just sad.

The EIHL is trying to market itself as a friendly alternative to the “traditional” sporting environment-how often do you hear arguments against swearing and announcements asking fans not to abuse the officials/players? Yet by continually refusing to take the lead in fighting homophobia among fans and players and publicly supporting initiatives such as You Can Play, the EIHL are refusing to commit to making their rinks and indeed UK hockey a safe place for ALL fans. By allowing team officials and “mouthpieces” of the game to continue to spout outdated sexist and racist views on Twitter without censure they’re making rinks seem unwelcome to a large section of society.

And worst of all, they’re making UK hockey look like an outdated sport stuck in the 70s to those who suffer such abuse.

At a time when UK hockey has much to recommend it (playing standard is climbing, crowds are doing the same, the competition is becoming more competitive every year at every level)…why wouldn’t teams take a PR slam-dunk that can’t possibly backfire? Why wouldn’t the EIHL move into the 21st century and become the first organisation in Europe to become affiliated with one of the largest sports charities in the world, not only improving its image as an inclusive area for all levels of society at a time when many “popular” UK sports, such as football, are still unwilling to openly embrace LGBT fans and players (an FA campaign plan to kick out homophobia was shelved when no player wanted to get involved recently, for example, for fear of “image”).

UK hockey has a chance to do something genuinely good in sport by taking a stand against the homophobia within it, and in the process promote the growth of the game within the UK.

But if incidents like last night in Sheffield are allowed to continue and teams remain scared of the “effect on image” promoted by attempting to be a more welcoming, inclusive sporting environment, then it’ll simply throw that chance to be taken seriously by those outside away.

And if incidents like that mentioned last night on Twitter and the sexist and racist language used in the past are not condemned and indeed a stand actively taken against them, then all EIHL and UK hockey clubs risk doing is alienating the fans they already have-something they can ill-afford to do.

The sport on-ice in the UK is evolving fast and catching up with modern lives and practices in the 21st century.

It’s time the EIHL made a public push for attitudes off ice to do the same-it can only benefit them and the fans who watch them in the long run.

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One thought on “You Can Play…Or Can You?: Homophobia in UK Hockey, And Why The EIHL Needs To Act

  1. Pingback: Weekly Links: Gordie Howe suffers stroke; Impact of AHL’s Overtime rule changes; Largest stick tap for spinal research; and more | Hockey in Society

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