Speaking Without Thought: Casual Homophobia in US Rec Hockey

Posted July 26, 2012

The players’ bench during a beer league game (Photo Credit: M. Richter)

Ever since the launch of the You Can Play Project, the term “casual homophobia” has been getting a lot more attention.  It’s the use of gay slurs as a default obscenity without consideration for the actual meaning of the words.  It’s the kind of abuse where it’s easier to keep your head down and stay quiet than pick a fight when you’re not sure how much an individual means what he or she says.

I’ve spent my share of time keeping my head down, staying out of fights for one reason or another.  In the last few years, I’ve worked over 500 hockey games as time and record-keeper, most of it in the adult recreational leagues of the DC area.  As someone with ties to the LGBT community, I can say that it isn’t always a pretty scene.

The Ruling Bodies:

In the United States, there are two groups which regulate adult recreational hockey.  USA Hockey (USAH) is the big one, involved in programs nationwide and serving as the principle source for on-ice official training at the amateur level.  They’re also the organization with IIHF-compliant rules and regulations, and organize the national hockey teams for international competitions like the World Junior Championships and the Olympics.

The smaller, strictly commercial counterpart is Hockey North America (HNA).  HNA operates on a smaller scale, enrollment-wise, and facilitates leagues in both the USA and Canada (with the occasional Norwegian team thrown in).  Their rulebook hasn’t been updated since 2003.

The Rules:

In the USAH Official Playing Rules & Casebook (Casebook), Rule 601(e)(2) states:

A game misconduct penalty shall be assessed to any player or team official who is guilty of the following actions: Uses obscene gesture or a racial/ethnic slur anywhere in the rink before, during or after the game.

In fact, when it comes to racial or ethnic hate speech, USA Hockey goes so far as to instruct that:

If the official sees an obscene gesture or hears a comment that is deemed to be derogatory of a racial or ethnic nature, the game misconduct penalty must be assessed. Rule Reference 601(e.2)

There is no place in the game for this type of action and the officials must strictly enforce this rule.

The Bad News:

I’m going to draw upon personal experience, here:  In the last three years at the rink, I’ve heard the word faggot thrown around more times than I can count.  The only time a penalty was assessed was when the term was directed specifically at a referee, and in that context, any insult would have received similar action (the player in question received a ten minute misconduct for unsportsmanlike conduct).

For a bit of perspective, in that same timeframe I’ve seen three players receive a game misconduct for using a racial slur.  That’s exactly as many times as I’ve heard one uttered in/around a hockey rink.  While working on this article, I ran into only one referee who could remember assessing someone a game misconduct under 601(e)(2) due to a gay slur.

USA Hockey provides public guidance on what it terms “inflammatory language” in two places.  The first is in the Casebook (Rule 601, Situation 5): “In each instance, the official should use their best judgment in assessing the proper penalty.”

On the organization’s website, their Ask the Official from March, 2009 also addresses the matter indirectly and reiterates the 2011-13 casebook suggestion that good judgment be applied as necessary.  But when it comes to that judgment, officials aren’t given much to go on – first year referees receive four or five hours of seminar instruction, an hour and a half on the ice, and a casebook.  After that, it’s up to their ever-changing stream of partners to provide on-the-job training in the “right” ways to manage a situation.

Most rinks which host HNA leagues contract their on-ice officials through regional USAH groups.  In lieu of specific directives, HNA simply uses “obscene, profane or abusive language” as the default description in any rule relating to Abuse of Officials/Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalties.

Change within the ranks is an uphill battle, and it will continue to be one in the foreseeable future.  As Patrick Burke explained when asked about the approach that YCP has embraced with their PSAs, “There’s this idea that you’re supposed to talk like that, that you’re supposed to use these words, that you’re supposed to say offensive things.  And now guys like Matt [Hendricks], like Mike Knuble, those type of guys are stepping up and saying ‘No, that’s not how we want to be. That’s not what we want hockey to be about.’

And we think that the rec league players that look up to these guys will say “OK, I can learn from Matt Hendricks, I can learn from Mike Knuble, and maybe I do need to change my language.  Maybe I do need to cut out these type of slurs.”

I’ve talked about the slurs, and I’ve talked about the lack of action against them – something even more notable in light of the fact that USA Hockey has an internship named for Brendan Burke.  It’s been demonstrated that yes, the stereotypes hold true for the moment.  Casual homophobia is still very much a part of recreational hockey, and it’s compounded by the attitude that actions taken while wearing a jersey don’t reflect on the individual who commits them.  The fact that there’s an air of tolerance to the enforcement side of the equation doesn’t help matters.

The Good News:

The silver lining on this situation is that in the recreational leagues, hate speech is the exception and not the norm.  Most players lose their cool at some point or another – they yell and scream and call each other (and the on-ice officials) names – but it’s a small minority who cross the line into inappropriate displays of anger (physical or verbal).

One of the most important things that YCP is doing is raising awareness of the harm that casual homophobia can cause unintentionally.  Every player who makes the choice to eliminate gay slurs from their default insult collection is a victory for the campaign, but it’s the kind of change that requires a consistent dialogue.  It won’t happen overnight, and it’s a substantially larger task at some levels of play than others.  The more entrenched the habit, the harder it is to break, and kids start spewing some pretty nasty things by the time they’re pee-wees (speaking again from personal experience at juvenile tournaments).

In addition to the professional NHL and AHL players who have spoken up in support of YCP, there have been a number of amateur and recreational hockey teams that have chimed in.  From the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds (OHL) to the Lady Thrashers in Atlanta (rec), and a half-dozen college programs including UConn, Princeton, University of Ottawa, and UCLA.

Looking Forward:

There’s a balance between education and enforcement that’s necessary when striving for long-term change, and it’s reflected well in Burke’s views on discipline relating to hate speech:

“I do think there should be rules against it, I think that speeds up the process in a lot of ways, especially at the younger levels…but not when it gets vindictive.  I think there should be fair and reasonable punishments, so that athletes are encouraged not just by the morality of things, but also by the financial side of things to fix their language in a hurry.

I think rec leagues, at that level there absolutely should be bans on it so that gay players can feel safe playing in those leagues and feel welcome in those leagues…I don’t think that’s too much to ask.  You’re talking about eliminating maybe ten words from your vocabulary.”

It might sound like a simplistic request, but it would be a strong first step toward improving the integrity of the game.