The use of homophobic slurs by athletes is so ingrained in sports culture, they don't even realize it's hurtful when they do it.
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In the Stanley Cup playoffs, raw emotion often carries the day. Tuesday night’s Game 4 of the Blackhawks-Blues series provided a disturbing example when Chicago forward Andrew Shaw directed a homophobic slur towards an on-ice official after being called for a penalty. The slur was caught on camera for all to see. After the game, Shaw said, “Emotions were high. I don’t know what I said. I wasn’t happy with the call.”
The 24-year-old forward apologized on Wednesday. “I am sincerely sorry for the insensitive remarks that I made last night while in the penalty box," Shaw said in a Blackhawks-issued statement. "When I got home and saw the video, it was evident that what I did was wrong, no matter the circumstances. I apologize to many people, including the gay and lesbian community, the Chicago Blackhawks organization, Blackhawks fans and anyone else I may have offended. I know my words were hurtful and I will learn from my mistake."
He will indeed have time to learn from his mistake as he was fined $5,000 and suspended by the NHL. Shaw will miss Game 5 in St. Louis on Thursday night, what could be the Blackhawks’ last game of the season.
You have to give Shaw the benefit of the doubt here and believe that he understands why using a slur creates an ugly stigma. The NHL has had its fair share of PR black eyes this season (the leaked concussion lawsuit emails; the investigation into alleged sexual assaults by players, etc.) so kudos to the league for setting a precedent not just by suspending Shaw but also requiring him to undergo sensitivity training.
Because that’s exactly what was lacking: sensitivity to just how forceful his language was and how wide-reaching the implications of it can be.
The world of professional sports, and in particular professional hockey, still struggles with exclusivity. Chris Hine knows this all too well. As a Blackhawks beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, Hine covers the team regularly. He is openly gay and he penned a moving column after Shaw apologized for using the slur.
“Shaw is not the problem,” Hine wrote, saying that Shaw's use of the epithet "like it was another four-letter word—and not remember saying it after the game—is the problem.”
Hine’s column speaks to the larger implications of Shaw’s actions. He wrote that he’s “…not naïve enough to think it will vanish quickly. Like a lot of athletes, Shaw likely doesn’t realize what he’s saying when [he's saying it].”
Hine told SI.com that he thinks the use of homophobic slurs is “ingrained” in sports culture.
“You hear it in all sports and nobody has really thought twice about it and its impact,” he wrote in an email. “And I think a part of that attitude—to emasculate and demean your opponent—will always be a part of sports.”
This is probably true. Competition lends itself to athletes doing everything they can to gain a mental advantage over their opponent.
But Shaw used the slur to demean a referee. On TSN, former NHL goalie Jamie McLennan, who often does color commentating from between NHL benches and has a front-row seat to the kind of trash talking that can ensue, said that he does not hear such things often. He went on to detail how far the game has evolved but the slur still threatens to set back the considerable progress that groups such as You Can Play have made to promote tolerance in professional sports.
“Andrew Shaw's apology is important,” You Can Play’s Brian Kitts told SI.com in an email. “I feel for the guy—he may not know any LGBT people and maybe this isn't an issue he's ever even thought about. But he knows it's important to fans, the Blackhawks and the League and he'll think about it. We also understand that words you've heard since you were in fourth grade slip out occasionally—he may not have meant it, but that's the problem. Until the language changes, people think it's just 'part of the game,' and it remains excusable somehow. It's not.”
The prevailing thinking around this incident from some people seems to be that the hockey world should accept Shaw’s apology and move on. And in the short term, that’s very likely what will happen. But his use of the slur highlights the need for the world of sports to move in the right direction: one that has complete understanding of how dangerous and hateful an anti-gay slur is but also how it could promote exclusivity and intolerance.
As Hine said, Shaw is not the problem. That he used it should force the hockey world to step back and remember: Like it or not, athletes are role models and the implications of their actions and words cannot often be measured immediately. The NHL needs to be a league that promotes tolerance and inclusivity and it should continue to do so through education.
Kitts believes the NHL and the Blackhawks have not created a culture of exclusivity. “The NHL and its clubs have committed hundreds of hours over the past several years, from dozens of staff and athletes, to work to change the culture of locker rooms and venues as part of You Can Play. It's the first league in North America to have a pro athlete from every team speak on behalf of LGBT issues—that's a big deal. The Blackhawks released their own You Can Play video just two weeks ago and very carefully included 'gay' and 'LGBT' in the language—that's intentional and it sends a message to the community. Believe me, we catch hell when a team, even with its heart in the right place, somehow omits the word 'gay.' Language cuts both ways.”
This is important, but so too is practicing what you preach.
Hine says that by shedding a light on this issue through Shaw’s incident, he hopes that others will understand its effect. For the league, a more progressive course of action might not be to sweep it under the rug but bring it to the public’s attention. After all, when a slur is used outside of the sphere of a heated playoff game, its effects are not so easily forgotten. Developing a better, wide-scale understanding of why players would use them is first necessary before the NHL can hope to eliminate it from the game altogether.