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NBA vs NHL; Advocates vs Adversaries

Athletes have a massive impact on societal issues. They have the power and platforms to vouch for change, and to advocate for minorities who do not have a voice. They also have a massive impact on fashion, inspiring fans to replicate their looks and purchase from their favorite brands. Many young children look up to and idolize athletes, and often mimic their beliefs and opinions as a result. Athletes can also have a negative impact on societal issues, however. The NBA has an overabundance of athletes who advocate for civil rights issues and racial discrimination, as well as LGBTQ+ rights. The NHL, however, is a very undiverse league that sees more players advocating against these issues than pushing for positive change. And one of the biggest ways both of these leagues are doing this is through their warm up attire.

Silence Does Not Equal Solidarity

Athletes are often put into a tough spot when it comes to societal issues. If they speak up in support of the issue, they will receive backlash. If they speak out against the issue, they will receive backlash. If they remain silent, which is what most athletes choose to do, they will also receive backlash. Truly, they can’t win. Many outspoken athletes such as Megan Rapinoe and LeBron James are often acknowledged as some of professional sports’ most hated athletes, because they vouch for change and don’t care what the consequences are. There has long been an argument that athletes need to just “stick to sports” and not speak their minds, but sport and societal issues are one and they cannot exist without the other. I, for one, totally agree with athletes using their platforms to positively impact major issues going on in the world. I think it's a shame, however, that many athletes use their platforms to do the opposite. But, one could argue their points are just as valid as those doing the opposite. Just because an athlete expresses an opinion or belief does not mean you have to agree with it. Either way, we should not be silencing these public figures nor forbidding them to express their opinions through their attire. Not saying anything at all is equally as bad as speaking out negatively about an issue.

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Christianity as a Mask For Hate

In recent years, we have seen an overabundance of professional hockey players refusing to take part in wearing pride warm up jerseys. Majority of these athletes use religion as a crutch, claiming it is against their beliefs to wear one. I personally believe that this is an excuse to mask a deeper hatred. Many religious groups are against the LGBTQ+ community. But, in the instance of wearing a pride jersey, these individuals are comparing it to an act of violence. Wearing a rainbow jersey for the entirety of a brief warm up before a game should not be viewed as something as bad as harming another person or an entire group. It simply is just an article of clothing, yet many NHL players view it as far more than that. Although players should be allowed to express their opinions and live their truth one way or another, instances such as this one actually are detrimental to these minority communities. When former Philadelphia Flyer Ivan Provorov refused to wear the pride jersey (and cited his Russian religious upbringing as the reason), his jerseys practically sold out. People who are like-minded in the sense that they are anti-LGBTQ+ were elated that he refused, and wanted to show their support of this refusal by buying his jersey. This is a problem.

Stuck in the Past

When it comes to diversity, the NHL is stuck in the past. There are very few minority players, and even fewer openly queer players. The league exclaims that “hockey is for everyone,” yet makes it only accessible to a very niche group of people. Leagues such as the NBA have come very far in recent years, with players of all backgrounds and identities being a part of it. Additionally, leniency with attire and a lack of rules against advocacy have helped the league to become as diverse as it is. The NBA is truly “for everyone,” and its athletes are observed advocating for positive change far more than negative.

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Outspoken is Obnoxious

Black athletes throughout history have been persecuted and silenced for using their public platforms to advocate for social issues that run in contrast to the opinions of dominant white culture. This has often deterred players from coming together in force to protest around common causes. In 2014, we saw LeBron James and Kyrie Irving (amongst other NBA players) sporting “I Can’t Breathe” warm up shirts. The shirt refers to a New York man, Eric Garner, who died July 17 after a police officer placed him in a chokehold when he was being arrested for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. These athletes received backlash for speaking on a “taboo” issue, as 2014 was very early in the Black Lives Matter movement. Back in 2020, the National Women’s Soccer League match between the Chicago Red Stars and Seattle Reign FC, U.S. Women’s National Team star Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the national anthem. This was in support of Colin Kaepernick. Both Rapinoe and Kaepernick faced major scrutiny for kneeling during the anthem, and were labeled as being “anti American.” Both faced major setbacks in their careers, both in predominantly white leagues. Kaepernick’s career essentially ended as a result of his outspokenness, but Rapinoe was given a second chance. One could argue that this was because she is a white female, and therefore has more sympathy from the overall public than someone like Kaepernick would. LeBron and other athletes across many different leagues sported game day/warm up attire in support of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. While these athletes faced backlash, their careers weren’t “canceled.” If in some opposite universe where an NHL player did this kind of thing, they undoubtedly would be exiled. That shows the drastic difference between these leagues. One accepts advocacy and one promotes adversaries.

Image via cbc news

Bye Bye Pride

By now, it's become quite apparent that the NHL wants anything unrelated to hockey to not exist in their league. All 32 teams were participating in “Hockey is for Everyone” nights and the wearing of Pride jerseys during warm ups, although many players declined to participate. This was a league mandated night to be held before this decision was made. Despite this, some teams as a whole still didn’t wear pride jerseys largely due to the fact that the owners had a choice on if the team wore them or not. As of Thursday this past week, NHL teams won’t wear special jerseys for pregame warmups during themed nights next season. This is the result of a handful of players refusing to use rainbow-coloured Pride jerseys this past season and causing unwelcome distractions. The league’s board of governors agreed Thursday with Commissioner Gary Bettman’s view that the refusals overshadowed teams’ efforts in hosting Pride nights that in some cases included auctioning off the warmup jerseys. While the league may think they are avoiding controversy by erasing these jerseys completely, they are actually doing the opposite. The first transgender athlete in pro hockey, Harrison Browne, recently spoke on this issue. Browne saying, "I think as a young LGBTQ2+ fan, or somebody that may be looking into getting into hockey, seeing one of their role models sporting a jersey that says: 'I support you, I welcome you, you're included here, you're safe here' — I think that the opportunity for that is now going to be erased and I think it's a really big shame.” I completely agree with Browne’s statement, and think that this change and lack of visibility will hurt young hockey fans.

Image via the guardian

Total Lack of Visibility

The lack of colored players in the NHL leaves many young fans who are any race other than white feeling like they don’t belong in this league, like they shouldn’t be playing this sport, and like they will never have a shot of making it to the professional level. This has always been the case, since hockey is an extremely expensive sport and truly only accessible to a very niche group of people. Now, young LGBTQ+ fans will also be feeling this way now more than ever. In my personal opinion, this league will continue to gradually morph into an all white, all straight, all the same league. It's almost to that point already, it really doesn’t have much further to go before this is the case. This is detrimental to our youth because the lack of visibility will deter many from even participating in sports. Eventually, this will impact professional leagues in terms of how many athletes are a part of the league as well as how many fans watch the games. There really are no positives coming out of this situation.

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Exposure is a Good Thing

Growing up seeing athletes like LeBron vouching for racial justice, like Alex Morgan vouching for equal pay for female athletes, and like Serena Williams speaking out in support of equality for black female athletes is something that all children should witness. It’s important for kids at a young age to get comfortable with seeing and hearing others' opinions, as it will be greatly important later in their lives with maturity. Most people will end up finding themselves in political discussion, and to form that base and find what they represent before then can greatly help people finding themselves in conflict. I also believe that children being exposed to athlete activism helps start a conversation. With awareness and attention comes a greater chance of a resolution. If these conversations aren’t started and these issues aren’t talked about, there is no chance they will get better. Kids being aware of what is going on in the world around them will prompt a whole new generation of individuals to become passionate about seeking a resolution to some of our greatest conflicts that we face today. Not only is exposure achieved by athletes physically speaking out, but also through their attire. Silencing them and other public figures will forever do more harm than good. They need to be able to express themselves through their words, and most importantly, their attire.

Image via The New York Times

Fashion Fuels Change

Fashion will forever impact sport, and vice versa. Fashion that makes a statement, and no I don’t mean in the fashion world, is something we need to keep seeing. The erasure of advocacy through fashion is detrimental and is furthering the narrative that athletes need to “shut up and stick to their sport.” This is just the first step. First, they won’t be allowed to wear anything that supports a minority group. Who's to say what the next step is. Regardless of what it is, the end result is silence. Leagues like the NHL and MLB don’t want to be politically incorrect, and they don’t want unwanted attention. They’d rather completely ignore anything and anyone who doesn’t fit their mold than speak out for change. Leagues like the NBA are making major strides towards total inclusivity and continue to promote advocacy. They are truly setting the tone for the rest of professional sports leagues, and it's a shame that many are reluctant to do the right thing. The NHL is taking massive leaps backwards while the NBA is doing the complete opposite. Yet, ironically, both are using their warm up attire (or lack thereof if you’re talking about the NHL) to fuel change. The only difference is that one is a positive change, and one is negative.

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