Everyone knows what Ryan Getzlaf said during Game 4 of the Western Conference Final, to earn himself a $10,000 fine from the National Hockey League. Read his lips. Or, if you need a cheeky euphemism as your guide, think of a vacuum chasing a rooster.
But what we’re all a little fuzzy about with the NHL these days is the migraine-inducing double standards that seem to exist when it comes to supplemental discipline. Like how hits that would seem like sure-thing suspensions in the regular season are ignored with teams facing elimination. Or like how one homophobic word or phrase can result in a one-game suspension in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but doesn’t result in one in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
(There’s also the double-standard on how punishments for language can eclipse punishments for illegal physicality, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Andrew Shaw, then of the Chicago Blackhawks, was suspended for Game 5 of their first-round series against St. Louis for what the NHL called “making use of a homophobic slur” during the game. You can see what he said here, and his apology here.
“While Mr. Shaw was apologetic and remorseful for both the offensive comments and the inappropriate gesture directed at the on-ice officials, he must be held accountable for his actions,” said NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell. “The emotion of the moment cannot and will not be a mitigating factor for the conduct that is expected of an NHL player.”
Getzlaf was fined for “directing an inappropriate remark toward another on-ice participant” in Game 4 against Nashville in the Western Conference Final.
“Getzlaf’s comment in Thursday’s game, particularly as directed to another individual on the ice, was inappropriately demeaning and disrespectful, and crossed the line into behavior that we deem unacceptable. The type of language chosen and utilized in this instance will not be tolerated in the National Hockey League,” said Campbell, whose hilariously ironic role as the arbiter of appropriate language makes sense when you remember that the NHL also made Chris Pronger a director for Player Safety.
You’ll notice that the NHL makes clear that what Shaw said was “a homophobic slur” while Getzlaf’s was an “inappropriate remark.”
Why the double standard, not only in linguistics but in punishment?
“Because one is more polite than the other,” joked Brian Kitts, president and co-founder of You Can Play.
“I’d be interested in knowing how the League and the NHLPA drew that distinction.”
You Can Play is an organization that works to ensure the safety and inclusion of all in sports, with a focus on including LGBTQ athletes, coaches and fans. It partnered with the NHL for “Hockey Is For Everyone Month” this season, but apparently they ran out of rainbow tape to place over Ryan Getzlaf’s mouth.
The general thought from those who believe Getzlaf shouldn’t have been suspended: That what he said isn’t a homophobic slur, because it’s something that doesn’t apply exclusively to homosexuals.
“When it first happened, you look through comments on blogs and stuff and we saw there was absolute insistence that this wasn’t a homophobic slur. Because it applies to women, and lots of other reasons. Where we came down on it was that any language that was going to offend a part of the LGBT community is unacceptable,” Kitts said.
“These things are a case by case thing, and I don’t know what the difference was, that drew the difference in discipline. I think what everyone agrees on is that, at some point, there was an assumption that it was potentially homophobic. That’s where the problem kicks in.”
That was the point Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune made in writing about the Getzlaf incident.
“Full disclosure, even as a gay man I initially thought Shaw’s word was worse. But after reflecting on it and polling some gay friends I wouldn’t say one is worse, I would say they’re different,” he wrote. “Getzlaf’s doesn’t carry the historical power of Shaw’s but the effects are the same – both tell gay men you are lesser humans because of your sexual orientation.”
Then there’s the fact that Getzlaf wasn’t suspended while Major League Baseball suspended Kevin Pillar of the Blue Jays for two games earlier that week for using a homophobic slur in a game.
“It was similar to the Andrew Shaw case last year,” said Kitts. “He used the word ‘faggot’ and the apology was immediate and felt very sincere.”
Kitts agreed that the suspension of Shaw vs. the fine for Getzlaf is, in the eyes of the NHL’s LGBTQ advocacy partner, a double standard.
“Yeah, but it goes deeper than that,” he said. “We’ve had people contact us over the years and ask us why we don’t say anything about ‘you suck!’ The root of that probably goes into the same sort of ‘cock-sucking’ thing [as Getzlaf’s words]. Is that homophobic?”
“At some point you become the language police over a very broad part of language,” he continued. “You have to pick your battles. Is a ‘Rangers Suck’ chant OK? Probably not. But is someone calling someone else a ‘faggot’ worse? In my mind, absolutely.’”
We asked Kitts if he was frustrated that the only time these words lead to NHL discipline is when they’re caught on camera.
“I think that we look at this as a long game. We’re certain that this language has been used, and continues to be used. But our mission is to change the culture in locker rooms and sports venues in general, and that doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “So when someone gets caught doing this, it’s a chance to reinforce the message. To rethink things.”
So the NHL fining Getzlaf, though unsatisfactory, was at least a chance to reinforce the message.
“We have never been that ‘torches and pitchforks’ organization. We think the league and the PA should pay attention to things like this, but it’s not up to us to weigh in on the business decisions that they provide. That an athlete says something, and then faces some sort of disciplinary action or rehabilitation is what’s important to us,” he said. “We look at this as a long game. It’s not as much about what he said than what he does after that. Does he meet with the LGBT community or LGBT players in the offseason to learn why that word is offensive?”
Say what you will about Shaw as a player, and about what he said last year. But he volunteered to be the Montreal Canadiens’ “Hockey Is For Everyone” ambassador when You Can Play asked Max Pacioretty to be theirs.
“I would point to Andrew Shaw, if you’re looking for proof that redemption is possible and change is possible,” said Kitts. “Advocacy includes finding new allies.”
And new allies can change the behavior that columnist Mark Spector believes is what keeps NHL players in the closet.
“It is why, in an NHL where even the least aggressive numbers predict there some 20 gay men scattered among the 30 teams (and likely more), not one of those men has identified an environment that would accept him as he is,” he wrote on Sportsnet. “Chances are there is at least one gay player in this Western Conference Final, quite possibly under Getzlaf’s captaincy. And I bet he’d sit at that podium with Getzlaf, if the environment was such that he could stop living the lie, and could help his captain realize the unintended power that word has in our game.”
Kitts agreed that when it comes to creating that environment, words matter.
“The reality is that when we put this together, we saw the need to change the casual homophobia in the locker room and the seating area. As opposed to ethnicity, where you can tell there’s an African-American guy standing next to you, you don’t know if you’re standing next to gay athlete, necessarily. So we wanted to start with the language. The next step isn’t just tolerance, it’s accepting your friends and your teammates the way the are. It’s not just hockey, it’s all sports,” he said.
“It’s disappointing when this stuff happens, but it’s not surprising that it does.”
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