When the NHL chose to not suspend Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, it backtracked on its previous standard of a suspension (even in the playoffs) for a player using homophobic language.
We can go around and around about whether the slur should be called a “slur,” or whether Getzlaf should have been suspended for using said slur. It’s quite obvious that, based on past NHL discipline, he should have been and this was simply a double-standard because he’s a team captain. But I’m not going to get into all that here.
Regardless of all that, there were three big mistakes the NHL made along the way that, if avoided, could have seen the whole episode result in a much better ending.
The biggest misstep the NHL made was not consulting gay men about the meaning and power of the word Getzlaf used.
There are no publicly out gay men in the NHL front office. The You Can Play project was not consulted. No out gay men were asked their opinion of a word that at the very least is homophobic in nature. So a bunch of straight people got in a room and decided what the word means without consulting any gay men.
Some people wondered aloud whether Patrick Burke, an NHL executive in player safety, was part of the decision. An NHL spokesperson told Outsports that Burke was not part of the decision-making team on this discipline, as it was not a player-safety issue.
How could they not make sure the staffer known for starting the You Can Play project was part of the team on this one? Simple: Burke is not a gay man. He knows he cannot speak for gay men when it comes to the use of slurs. He can certainly speak as a straight man with a gay brother and who has become intimately aware of the issues facing LGBT athletes, gay fans and everyone else in between.
Yet if the NHL wants the perspective of LGBT people, they need to ask LGBT people.
In this case, the NHL didn’t want to know. Or they would have asked.
The league has a partnership with the You Can Play project, but that partnership does not include discipline decisions. You Can Play has made it clear the organization is not interested in getting into discipline issues and instead focuses on education. Of course, discipline is part of education, but the You Can Play project usually chooses to stay out of conversations about suspensions and fines.
Yet that brings me to the second major failure of the NHL on this issue. While You Can Play and others may not want to focus on discipline, there is zero education going on here with Getzlaf and the Ducks.
There is no sensitivity training mandated for Getzlaf by the NHL. When Shaw yelled his gay slur, mandatory training was part of the NHL’s discipline and education efforts. Yet with Getzlaf, there’s nothing. Zero. Zip.
Making matters worse, Getzlaf’s public statements about what he said – blaming other people for thinking the word is homophobic and refusing to apologize for saying it – shows he actually needs the training more than Shaw, who was profusely apologetic on the verge of tears after what he said.
So the person and the team most clearly in need of the kind of conversations that You Can Play helps foster have no mandate from the NHL to have those conversations.
The third and final disaster of this incident involves not just the NHL and the Ducks, but a key Getzlaf teammate.
In February the NHL announced, in partnership with You Can Play, an LGBTQ ambassador for every one of the NHL teams. The Ducks’ LGBTQ ambassador is Ryan Kesler. So what was the response of the NHL-appointed LGBTQ ambassador to the slur used by his teammate?
Zero. Nothing. Kesler said nothing. He did nothing. He is supposed to be there to be an ambassador for our community. Our ambassador didn’t do anything.
How can the You Can Play project effectively do its job if its main line to the Ducks can’t even open his mouth in a crucial moment like this? How can any gay athlete feel they have a place to turn on the team if their supposed biggest support can’t support them?
How can any of us take this “ambassador” program seriously?
At this point there’s nothing the NHL is going to do on this issue. The media has moved on, the fans have moved on, and the NHL, Getzlaf, Kesler and the Ducks have gotten away with a complete mishandling of this incident.
Hopefully the NHL will learn from these three mistakes and make sure they don’t happen again.
I have zero hope for Getzlaf, Kesler or the Ducks.
For more information on the You Can Play project, click here.