November 03, 2009
His opinion piece for USA Today called "It's time to end the use of gay slurs in hockey" is going to get some deserved attention.
Bourne discusses how he contributed to "hockey's culture of homophobia and prejudice against gays" as a player; the lack of any openly gay male players in professional hockey; and concludes that "it's time to acknowledge we've been unfair to the gay community, that the culture of our sport can be misogynistic, homophobic and cruel."
From USA Today:
There hasn't been progress on this issue for years. When I ran the idea for this column by my uncle, a sportswriter and editor, he mentioned a piece he wrote 20 years ago after the general manager of a major junior hockey team in Canada said something like: "We don't have any weak-wristed players in this locker room."
Twenty years later, this attitude has yet to be shucked from hockey. We can't wait another two decades ignoring the small but consistent strides of progress that the world outside sport is making.
We need to make a change now, because kids who move away from home to play junior hockey at 16 or 17 are still impressionable. If they don't encounter a good role model, the seeds are sown for a person, who after trying to fit in, thinks it's OK to drink, treat women a certain way and use homosexuality as a punchlines.
Does hockey have a problem with intolerance, and is it time to take a stand?
First off, let's cut to the chase: Questioning another man's masculinity is a societal norm for provocation. The issue is whether you can separate the more benign ridicule (see the Mike Milbury "Pansification" flap from last season) from the defamatory insults that keep gay players trembling in the closet or out of professional sports altogether.
(And yes, let's remember that this is a pro sports issue as much as a hockey one.)
Bourne regrets his contribution to the homophobia in hockey, but it's a problem that goes beyond the locker room. Please recall the controversy at Madison Square Garden last spring, where the anti-gay environment at New York Rangers game forced protests from gay hockey fans. But again, there are varying degrees of offensive behavior. It's one thing to chant that "Team X Sucks" from the stands; it's another to bellow a gay slur at an opposing player from the cheap seats.
That isn't to say there isn't a closed-minded, homophobic culture in hockey, because there is. Horrific stories like Theo Fleury's molestation as a junior player likely cloud the issue further, as the intolerant all too easily see crimes like molestation as "symptoms" of homosexual behavior, disgusting and misguided as that is.
How do you change that mindset? With bravery and patience.
Bravery, in the hope that, as Bourne suggests, a few gay players decide to come out publicly, suffer the slurs and show the hockey world that a 90-point center is still a 90-point center no matter to whom he comes home to every night. The moment that taboo is broken, there's no going back. It'll just take an extraordinary individual to break it.
Patience, in the hope that as the generations change in professional sports, so will the levels of acceptance. It's happened throughout history with race; sexual preference is a slower process, complicated by religious dogma and political discourse.
At first, the timing of this column seemed a tad odd: The rest of the hockey world is talking about how to remove reckless, violent hits from the game, and Bourne's writing about gay rights. That's until you realize that both issues center on fundamental changes to the philosophy of those who play, manage and work within the game.
We've always said that legislating fighting or hits to the head out of hockey will only do so much; that it will take future generations of players removing them through natural selection for the culture to change. Taking a stand against bigotry of gays in hockey is noble, but this is a generational issue; patience is as much a virtue as tolerance in this fight.
Look, Bourne's heart is in the right place. But it's going to take more than just "we are the change we've been waiting for" declarations to move hockey culture past ignorant intolerance. The one thought we couldn't escape in reading Bourne's piece: Would he have written it while he was an active player? To that, we quote his final words in the column: "It's better late than never."