Pride in sports and the responsibility of fame


Ethan Attwood comments on LGBTQ+ rights and freedom of expression in the sporting world.

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By Ethan Attwood

The Los Angeles Dodgers Baseball club made headlines in May for extending, then rescinding, and finally re-extending, an invitation to the drag comedy group Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters, who began in the 1980s holding fundraisers for AIDS organisations, dress as satirical nuns for “the expiation of stigmatic guilt and the promulgation of universal joy”. The Dodgers were accused of becoming an “anti-Catholichate group”, laying bare the American Rights persecution complex. Only after the backlash from uninviting the Sisters exceeded, the initial outcry did the Dodgers reverse their decision. Unfortunately, they were not the first to grab headlines for an anti-Pridestance this year. That title goes to National Hockey League (NHL) goaltender James Reimer, who cemented his otherwise unremarkable legacy by refusing to wear the San Jose Sharks’ Pride jersey for warmups before a game on 18 March 2023.

In a statement, he explained: “I have a personal faith in Jesus Christ who died on the cross for my sins and, in response, asks me to love everyone and follow him. I have no hate in my heart for anyone, and I have always strived to treat everyone that I encounter with respect and kindness. In this specific instance, I am choosing not to endorse something that is counter to my personal convictions, which are based on the Bible, the highest authority in my life. I strongly believe that every person has value and worth, and the LGBTQIA+ community, like all others, should be welcomed in all aspects of the game of hockey.”

Reimer’s statement attempts to justify his decision with a predictable tactic: that while he’d love to support the pride community and is presumably an adult with free will, the Bible told him not to. His failure to see the contradiction in his words begs the question of whether he thinks hockey fans are equally morally subordinate or just dumb.

An unscientific canvassing of public response to Reimer’s position via the comment section on The Athletic revealed roughly even proportions of defenders and critics, mostly centred around “his right to choose”(because Christians are well-known for their pro-choice positions) and a desire to “keep politics out of sport”. Perhaps it’s simply that Reimer and his supporters see this gesture as unnecessary. Unfortunately, the NHL has an image problem.

In 2010, a 20-year-old forward for the Chicago Blackhawks named Kyle Beach reported to his team’s management that he had been sexually assaulted by a video coach, Brad Aldrich. According to the NHL’s independent investigation, the team's then-president John McDonough and then-head coach Joel Quenneville“made comments about the challenge of getting to the Stanley Cup Finals and a desire to focus on the team and the playoffs.” McDonough claimed he would “handle the situation”, but remained reluctant to incur bad publicity during the playoffs. Aldrich continued to travel with the team through the conclusion of the postseason, which the Blackhawks won. He was then given the option to resign, paid severance and received a championship ring from the club. With nothing on his record, he then went on to work for two universities and Houghton High School in Michigan, where in 2013, he was arrested and charged with fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor.

The NHL only opened the investigation into the Blackhawks a decade later after Beach filed a lawsuit. The team’s president and vice-president of hockey operations resigned for their roles in the coverup, as did Quenneville, who had since moved on to coaching the Florida Panthers. The Blackhawks, who also won the championship three and four years after the incident, were fined $2 million by the league. The team’s worth is estimated by Forbes at $1.5 billion. Other members of that front office are still working in the NHL.

This serves as a grisly article of evidence to suggest the NHL is not a safe, welcoming or inclusive environment. How could an institution that failed one of its own so badly, with so few repercussions for the perpetrators, possibly mitigate against the inequities faced by marginalised groups?

In the face of Reimer’s comments, it is worth noting that there are currently 1,600 players under contract with an NHL team, and only one, Luke Prokop, has come out as gay. This ratio of 0.06 percent stands in stark contrast to that of the United States average (around two percent). Assuming there is no correlation between heterosexuality and athletic ability, there is clearly a barrier to LGBTQ+ participation or openness in hockey.

The English Premier League (EPL) manages to achieve greater solidarity in its campaigns, with little resistance to Pride laces and actions such as “taking a knee” against racism. While religious bigotry tends to be less socially acceptable in Europe than in rigidly fundamentalist America, the EPL also doesn’t tend to go as far as shooting pride nights.

I’m under no illusions that organisations host these events out of a sense of altruistic responsibility; this is obviously marketing. North American sports franchises, with significant competition from five major sports, need to expand their brands into new markets in a way that European clubs don’t, where football is broadly the only show in town. However, positive outcomes can arise from cynical motivations, and incentivising social progress financially may be the only way to coerce businesses into activism. Freedom of expression is critical to a functioning democracy and should be protected. No one is suggesting Reimer should be jailed for his views, but it doesn’t give you immunity to criticism. Gaining a public platform by donning the uniform of a team binds you to a contract of collective values and responsibilities. European clubs should be praised for their enforcement of that contract with their employees but scrutinised for the relative timidity of their advocacy.

Perhaps James Reimer, and others shrouding their discomfort behind a thin veneer of religious obligation, should consider how Jesus really would have wanted his spirit of love and acceptance expressed.