By Ben Browne
Warning: Homophobic and transphobic slurs, though obscured, are present in this article.
We are living in 2017. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada since 2005 and the U.S. since 2015. Yet, in other parts of the world — like Indonesia — gay couples are being sentenced to caning as of last week.
How…how…is that still okay in 2017?
Then we have the last five days in the professional sports landscape. On Wednesday, it was the Blue Jays’ Kevin Pillar, who appeared to refer to Atlanta Braves pitcher Jason Motte as a “f****t” after he struck him out in the 7th inning of an 8–3 ball game. Pillar was subsequently suspended, in agreeance with Major League Baseball and its Players’ Association, for two games for the use of the slur.
Then the very next night, Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks uttered a homophobic slur in frustration towards an official. He appeared to call the official a “c*******r” on his way back to the bench. Getzlaf was fined $10,000 for his comment––the maximum permitted under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement––but he was not suspended a single game for the remark.
Pillar apologized profusely to his teammates, the league, and the LGBTQ community, while also issuing an in-person apology to Motte, in the aftermath of the event. In speaking to the media on Thursday, he said he was “embarrassed” and “ashamed” by his remark, and that “[he] helped extend the use of a word that has no place in baseball . . . or anywhere in society.” Pillar also said he agreed with his team’s decision to suspend him and that he would take every opportunity to turn this situation into a positive one.
Blue Jays’ GM Ross Atkins flew to Atlanta the day after the incident to address the media, where he said Pillar is extremely remorseful for his momentary lapse in judgement, and that the Blue Jays’ organization will begin steps to work with the LGBTQ community, stating, “We will make sure it’s thoughtful, and something that can have a significant impact.”
On the other hand, we have Getzlaf, who only in a roundabout way took ownership for his use of a slur, saying, “I’ve got to be a little bit more responsible for the words I choose,” while in the same breath saying, “There was obviously some words said, not necessarily directed at anyone in particular,” and, “It’s tough to see someone refer to it as (homophobic). I didn’t mean it in that manner in any way.” Getzlaf also refused to use the term ‘homophobic slur’ when describing his remark, saying, “I understand that it’s my responsibility to not use vulgar language, period. Whether it’s a swear word, or whatever it is.”
Furthermore, the Ducks organization itself has not issued a statement of any kind relating to the situation, and has not taken any additional action to what has been taken by the league. Even more disheartening, though, is the lack of acknowledgement by the NHL that Getzlaf did, in fact, use a homophobic slur in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final. Instead of using the word homophobic, they used the words “obscene, profane or abusive” as adjectives for his comment. Colin Campbell, NHL Executive Vice President, called the remarks “inappropriately demeaning and disrespectful,” but, again, refused to label them homophobic.
So, in essence, we have one instance where everyone involved takes genuine ownership for what occurred and is doing everything possible to atone for the mistake, and another where no one takes genuine ownership and is doing nothing to atone for the mistake.
That right there shows that, sadly, we have a long way to go.
Another thing these two incidents scream is that the time is now to finally, once and for all, eliminate homophobia in all sports at all levels. As was mentioned in the opening of this piece, this is 2017. We have come so far in the advancement of equality for all people on the LGBTQ spectrum, but occurrences such as these, and the utter refusal to truly admit wrongdoing (on the part of Getzlaf and his camp), are major setbacks in that advancement. Until words such as “f*****t,” “c*******r,” and other homophobic slurs that have been infamously referred to as “locker room talk,” are permanently removed from sports, gay athletes will remain closeted for fear that they will be judged simply for being who they are.
Eradicating homophobia — and trans and biphobia — in sports is not about promoting “political correctness” as so many individuals believe. It is about promoting equality and inclusion for athletes of all sexual orientations and gender identities. So many LGBTQ athletes stop playing sports — some at threshold moments in their athletic lives — because of the aforementioned “locker room talk.” It simply becomes too much for a gay person to hear the words “f*****t” and “c******r,” or for a trans person to hear the words “t*****y” and “it,” kicked around the dressing room like a soccer ball. They just can’t handle it.
Athletes and leagues are major players (no pun intended) in the erosion of LGBTQ discrimination in society as a whole. They have a responsibility as role models to members of society to act professionally and gracefully in not using prejudicial terminology neither publicly nor in the privacy of locker rooms. They also have a responsibility to children and young athletes to show them that this type of behaviour is completely unacceptable. Athletes are on a pedestal when it comes to the fan bases of their teams and the games themselves, and they have one of the largest platforms in the world to serve as activists for this real, genuine issue. But with one slip of the mind and tongue from players like Kevin Pillar and Ryan Getzlaf — who are not just athletes, but superstars in their respective sports — a little more doubt is planted in the minds of gay or transgender people who were going to come out on Wednesday but were deterred by Pillar’s comment. That is not to say either Pillar or Getzlaf are truly homophobic, because it’s impossible to assert that without knowing them, but when the words are spoken, the damage is immediate and intense.
Athletes are human and will make mistakes. For now, the goal is to, when they do slip up, have them do what Kevin Pillar did: acknowledge the term as offensive, take ownership for his mistake, and do whatever he can to educate himself and others on the issue. In the future, the goal is to normalize the LGBTQ community so they are treated equally by all of society, making it as acceptable to be gay or transgender as it is to be heterosexual (I consider “straight” to be a derogatory term implying there is something ‘crooked’ about a gay person, hence my choice not to use it) or cisgender. We are all human, and regardless of who we love or what gender we identify with, we all deserve to be treated as such. Hopefully Pillar and Getzlaf will use their mistakes to better themselves and better our world by promoting a safer, happier, more inclusive society where everyone feels loved and accepted for who they truly are.
Ben Browne also writes for Canada Football Chat. You can find his Twitter here.