Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres is the latest in a growing string of professional athletes who have had anti-gay and homophobic tweets from their teenage years surface.

It seems every few weeks or months we’ve seen a headline about this over the last couple of years. Some people want to use those headlines to paint pro sports — in this case the NHL — as inherently homophobic. Others want to completely dismiss the incidents as the actions of a teenager — and in Eichel’s case when he was just 14 — as “boys will be boys.”

Neither of these is right. Instead, Eichel’s tweet is the latest evidence that we have been focusing far too much on “changing” the culture of professional sports and far too little on how we coach young athletes and the behavior we foster in youth sports.

Eichel didn’t come up with that tweet in a vacuum. He learned it.

“I don’t begrudge any of these players [who tweet gay slurs as youth], as I believe that they are products of a culture that uses homophobic language constantly,” said Brock McGillis, a former player in the Ontario Hockey League and a semi-pro player in Europe. “That being said, people need to learn from their behaviors and, if you’re caught doing this, there has to be repercussions for your words or actions.”

A 14-year-old Jack Eichel tweeted a gay slur

Eichel, a captain of the Sabres and a 2018 NHL All-Star, tweeted in 2011, when he was a teenager, an unfortunate gay slur…

Various staff members in the Sabres’ media relations department did not return voicemails and multiple emails seeking response over the course of two weeks.

Despite the team’s reticence to respond to our requests for comment, no doubt Eichel will now release a statement about how this doesn’t reflect who he is today. The Sabres will in turn say they don’t condone the use of slurs, a couple non-profit organizations will thank them for their statements, and everyone will act like it never happened.

Except it did happen. But that doesn’t mean Eichel is a bad person, or even that he’s anti-gay.

RELATED: Should we hold pro athletes responsible for anti-gay teen tweets 5 years ago?

A teenage Eichel, before he became a star in the NHL, used gay slurs so much that they bled onto his public Twitter feed. Yet it’s not necessarily an indication of how he feels about the community, or even how he felt about gay people when he was 14. What it confirms is that some of his behavior from his youth as a star athlete certainly would make gay, bi and queer teammates and friends feel terrible about themselves.

And that tweet was largely not Eichel’s fault.

Many pro athletes used gay slurs on Twitter in their youth

This tweet is just the latest from pro athletes’ teenage days that have come to light in the last couple of years:

We have heard for years about the prominence of this kind of language in youth sports, and Eichel’s tweet is the latest reminder of this. Various pro athletes I’ve spoken to — both gay and straight — have said they heard virtually no anti-gay language in pro locker rooms, but high school was rife with them.

While so many organizations and media stories love to focus on these issues in professional sports, it’s when these athletes are pre-teens that they learn this behavior. Even if they still use that language occasionally in the pros — and we know some do in the NHL — most pro athletes are professionals. They’re adults. It’s where they originally learned that behavior — from adults, coaches and older high school boys — that more attention is needed.

Eichel’s tweet is the latest evidence that we have been focusing far too much on “changing” the culture of professional sports and far too little on how we coach young athletes and the behavior we foster in youth sports.

Canucks goalie Anders Nilsson talked at length about this culture of youth hockey that is so outwardly homophobic that any gay athlete would “quit when they were younger. There’s no one who would dare to or want to keep playing.”

Now that this behavior in youth sports — and in this case hockey — is coming to light in their adult years as pro athletes, each of them, including now Eichel and the Sabres, has an opportunity to be part of the solution after, in their teen years, contributing to the problem.

Pro athletes taking action against anti-gay language

Jason Collins, who knows a thing or two about being a professional athlete, said athletes can work with their teams to identify local LGBTQ organizations to better understand the issues at hand with the use of anti-gay language and help the community work to eradicate these issues.

“Those players that truly want to make amends should try to tell their community service directors to seek out local LGBT organizations and demonstrate that I’m an ally of the community and I really am for inclusion and acceptance,” Collins said.

McGillis agreed with Collins and said the opportunity for a guy like Eichel to now do some good requires more than just making a financial donation.

“All too often we see athletes throwing money at organizations, doing a photo op and that’s it,” McGillis said. “Reality is that does nothing to shift the culture, make it more inclusive or to educate peers, fans or younger athletes.”

Some of his suggestions were to write a first-person story about your past, present and future on the issues of LGBTQ inclusion, go out and speak out for inclusion and against the use of hateful language at sports organizations and schools, or get involved with a charity beyond simply writing a check.

Imagine the power of an NHL All-Star like Eichel visiting Buffalo-area high schools and talking with athletes about the need to cut out that language. There’s incredible power in standing in front of young hockey players and saying, “I was in your skates, I used this kind of language, and this is what I’ve learned about it being the wrong thing to do.”

“Take time out of your busy schedule and do something to be part of the shift,” he said.

“It is not what you say. It is what you do and how you treat people that matters. There are no words to erase the previous words. Only actions.” — Kirk Walker, UCLA softball coach

Kirk Walker, the UCLA softball coach who is active with both GO! Athletes and Equality Coaching Alliance, underscored the idea of doing something more than just a statement, a check and a photo-op, as that can look like a publicity stunt to gloss over the real issue.

“It is not what you say,” Walker said. “It is what you do and how you treat people that matters. There are no words to erase the previous words. Only actions.”

There is a Pride Center of Western New York right there in Buffalo, where the Sabres play. The group even has a link about various ways to get involved and help the local LGBTQ community.

And, lo and behold, there is a Gay and Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York.

Opportunities abound.

Eichel has no previous visible rejection, or support, of the LGBTQ community

The question now is what will Eichel do? As Collins pointed out to me, when then-49ers player Chris Culliver said something really stupid about gay people, he followed it up with action and education. He turned lemons into lemonade.

Will Eichel and the Sabres sweep this under the rug? Continue to ignore that the tweet still exists despite them knowing about it?

Eichel didn’t come up with that tweet in a vacuum. He learned it.

At this time we couldn’t find any public demonstration by Eichel of any embrace, or any rejection, of the LGBTQ community in the past. Last year the Sabres did create a video in support of the LGBTQ community and the You Can Play project, featuring three players and head coach Phil Housley. Eichel did not participate in that video.

Searching Eichel’s Twitter feed over the last three years, since being drafted by the Sabres, we could find no mention of support — or for that matter any rejection — of the LGBTQ community, Pride, the NHL’s Hockey Is For Everyone campaign, or the You Can Play project.

Regardless of what he has or has not done in the past, LGBTQ athlete and advocate Chris Mosier said it’s important that everyone’s mind be open about where we all go in the future.

“It’s also important for us to remember that people can change,” Mosier said. “People’s views and opinions and understanding of topics they have little experience with can evolve over time, so it’s our responsibility to also allow people the space to grow and change, change their opinions thoughts about LGBTQ people, and make up for some of the harm that they may have caused in the past through language or actions.”

Now the Sabres and Eichel have the opportunity to help undo the pain Eichel and other athletes like him have caused using this kind of language over the years. They have the chance to help stop the cycle of language in youth sports that led them to this very place.

The puck is on their ice.