May 18 update: Looks like the streak was broken in MLB.
If the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball were factories, they would have signs that read:
365 DAYS SINCE ONE OF OUR PLAYERS UTTERED AN ON-FIELD GAY SLUR
On April 19, 2016, Andrew Shaw, then with the Chicago Blackhawks, used a gay slur after receiving a major penalty late in an NHL playoff game. He was suspended one game. It was the last time a player in any of the Big 4 men’s pro sports leagues in the U.S. used a public gay slur in competition — one caught on camera or heard by an official.
Players from these four sports have been publicly clean off the field (or ice or court) as well, with one exception. In February, David Parry of the Indianapolis Colts was arrested in Arizona on a drunk driving charge and allegedly uttered gay slurs at the arresting officers.
This lack of public utterances of gay slurs by pro athletes — the most-recognized in their sport — is a positive trend and reflects the fact that homophobia isn’t cool. This mirrors what happened with racial slurs against blacks, which were widespread decades ago but are now considered beyond the pale.
I am not suggesting that homophobia or racism have ended. Far from it. There are still people in the U.S. attacked for their race or sexual orientation or gender identity. And these attacks are often accompanied by ugly slurs.
In addition, anti-LGBT or racist politicians and their supporters now resort to code to enact discriminatory legislation, be it “religious freedom” or “bathroom safety” to deny LGBT rights or voter suppression of racial minorities to combat nonexistent “voter fraud.”
But language does matter and if homophobic language has gone underground, that’s a sign of a changing culture. We used to write fairly routinely about gay slurs by athletes, whether they were competing or when they posted on social media. Such stories were an Outsports staple. They are now few and far between.
We still hear of examples of gay slurs from an occasional college athlete, bonehead announcer or idiotic fans. In almost all cases, though, players who are caught don’t try to justify themselves. They apologize. In Shaw’s case, he was so repentant that he is now the LGBT ambassador for the Montreal Canadiens as part of the You Can Play Project.
One key element in the Shaw case was the fact he was suspended for a playoff game. That was a strong punishment that got everyone’s attention. Where once the use of a gay slur would be tolerated or winked at as a “boys will be boys” mentality, it’s different today. Michael Jordan calling someone a “flaming faggot” in 2017 would be treated a lot differently than in 2002.
Cynics will say that homophobia is as strong as ever in sports and that most athletes are still anti-gay and simply censoring themselves. I don’t believe that is the case. People do change and sports has become more accepting.
There is still a ways to go, but the fact that gay slurs are considered taboo is something to be celebrated, not pooh-poohed.