September 27, 2011
"The '24/7' franchise is fashioned on larger-than-life personalities, engaging storylines and unrestricted access."
That was HBO executive producer Rick Bernstein, in an announcement made hours before the Philadelphia Flyers played the New York Rangers on Monday night, and Wayne Simmonds(notes) allegedly used a homophobic epithet against Sean Avery(notes).
HBO would be proud, not of the language, but of the access. It was a made-for-TV incident. Microphones picked up Avery's threats to Claude Giroux(notes). Cameras caught Simmonds mouthing a nearly unmistakable gay slur at Avery.
You want unrestricted access?
Be careful what you wish for.
But the truth is: We don't really want unrestricted access, do we? HBO's "24/7", for all its glory, wasn't a few episodes of raw footage. It was constructed by editors, probably vetted by the League, and anything that came close to the Simmonds/Avery affair was left on the editing room floor.
(Unless you really believe there was no crossing-the-line trash talk at any of the games HBO covered, which would either be miraculous or an argument for better quality audio equipment.)
The rink is a cesspool of lawlessness and unconscionable behavior that exists solely to gain a competitive advantage. Forgive the Sin City cliché, but in most cases what happens on the ice stays on the ice, or is later avenged on the ice.
You don't see someone who punched another player in handcuffs after games. You don't see someone penalized for high-sticking in the back of a cop car at the end of the period. You don't have a police investigation into injurious hits unless you're in Montreal.
And you don't typically have on-ice trash talk relayed to the media after games. Unless, of course, that trash talk is a matter of public record thanks to "unrestricted access."
It would appear the rink can no longer hide from reality.
Personally, I consider smack talk to be an art. At its no-holds-barred, anything goes best, it's a battle of creativity and will and emotional stability. It's one of the reasons why players like Avery or any other yapper have a place in the NHL, because the ability to use words as effectively as some knuckle-dragger uses the butt-end of his stick is an asset and a skill.
To be effective, you have to go to dark places. Insensitive places. That Avery's said worse than "faggot" doesn't mean he can't be offended by the word Simmonds allegedly used, especially given Avery's work and involvement in the gay community.
But c'mon: Avery's said worse. Countless players have. In the rink you expect nothing less.
Smack talk is a cousin of comedy. In both genres, you're attempting to elicit a response through politically incorrect, socially irresponsible candor. The problem in 2011 for both hockey pests and raunchy comics is that sound travels.
Michael Richards tried to handle an African-American heckler with an uncomfortable barrage of racial slurs that were caught on film. Tracy Morgan — who used to perfect the art of smack talk in comedy battles before going mainstream — apologized for an anti-gay rant in Nashville after someone wrote an essay about it on Facebook.
We've arrived a moment as a culture where venues previously thought to be bastions of political incorrectness are now being monitored for content; where the people who populate these societal Thunderdomes of unfettered behavior are being held accountable.
This began the moment when society realized there could be repercussions for actions. Use a racial slur, and you can lose your job. Traffic in homophobia, and expect a social movement's momentum to crush you into apology.
Avery has been called much worse than what Simmonds' allegedly said by his critics in the aftermath of the incident, because he told the media the NHL should investigate Simmonds accordingly.
First off: It's hard not to see that request, at least partially, as an extension of his on-ice character; provoking an action and then turning to the official, palms to the sky, wondering where his justice is.
Yet if anyone has a right to ask the National Hockey League what the repercussions are for sexual taunts, it's Sean Avery. Bill Daly told ESPN New York that the NHL "has the ability to discipline for language used on the ice"; as Avery can tell you, that ability extends to the locker room, too.
Sloppy Seconds, anyone?
The problem with policing language is that you eventually get into semantics. Was a sex joke about an ex-girlfriend worse than a racial slur? Is a racial slur worse than a sexual slur? And isn't the level of offense determined by the offended party?
(For more on that, check out the Puck Buddys this morning.)
I have gay friends who are offended by the word Simmonds used. I have gay friends that brush it off. I have straight friends who never use it, and others that use it like some people use "hello."
That last line was lifted from Louis CK's sitcom on FX, from a remarkable scene from the first season, in which a bunch of comics at a poker game ask a gay comic about use of the word "faggot" on stage. His response:
"I think you should use whatever word you want. I don't care. When you use it on stage, it's funny, and I don't care. But are you interested to know what it means to gay men?
"The word faggot really means a bundle of sticks bound together to be used in a fire. Now, in the middle ages, when they used to burn people that they thought were witches, they used to burn homosexuals too. They used to burn the witches at the stake, but they felt the homosexuals were too low to waste a stake on, so they used to just throw them in with the kindling, with the other faggots. Which is where you get 'flaming faggot'.
"You might want to know that every gay man in American has had that word shouted at them when they've been beaten up. So when you say it, it kind of brings is all back up. So by all means: Use it, get your laughs, but now you know what it means."
Along with the HBO announcement, the NHL made another one before the Flyers/Rangers game. The League is joining Beyond Sport United, an organization that seeks to use sports to create "a positive impact on communities" and emphasizes the "social inclusion" of organized sports.
Forget the impact on fans or Sean Avery or the NHL's image. When you get bananas thrown at black players or any player gets caught using a gay slur on camera, the essential question is whether that behavior is preventing someone from trying out for a team or skating locally; about whether that behavior is discouraging someone from embracing the game.
Like the comic on "Louie" said: "Get your laughs, but now you know what it means." When you use that word or any word, know what it means to someone who isn't on the ice but overhears it or reads about it the next day and has it cause personal pain. Know that, in today's society, anyone can be listening.
The "sanctity of the rink," such as it is, extends through every beer league and college league and minor league and pro league in North America. It's safe haven for bad behavior. It's a cultural thing; and like every other change for hockey, it's not going to take Kobe-style $100,000 fines by the thought police to affect change but rather generations of changing attitudes.
I love my smack-talk, caught on open mics or overheard at the rink. We wanted unrestricted access. We've received unrestricted access. And now the NHL has to adjust accordingly, because the world has an ear to the glass.