Gary Bettman capped off Pride Month with a loud diss to LGBTQ hockey fans. After a small minority of players refused to wear rainbow warmup jerseys last season for their team’s respective Pride Nights, the NHL commissioner announced the league will ban all speciality uniforms going forward.
Rather than standing up for LGBTQ people, whose money is welcome at all 30 NHL arenas, Bettman decided to take the easy way out. Now the question is, will the rest of the leagues follow?
Sadly, signs point to “probably.”
While Bettman tried to frame his jersey ban as universal–it also includes military tribute nights–it’s apparent he’s targeting Pride jerseys. His language gives it away.
“It’s become a distraction, and taking away from the fact that all of our clubs host nights in honor of various groups or causes, and we’d rather they continue to get the appropriate attention they deserve and not be a distraction,” he told SportsNet.
Obviously, Bettman is talking about Pride uniforms, considering it’s difficult to remember any controversy surrounding other jersey promotions. In doing away with rainbow-infused sweaters (which by the way, teams only wore during warmups), he’s shamefully allowing a small group of outliers to dictate league policy.
Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos put it well. “It was 98% or 99% of other players that wore the jersey and enjoyed wearing it and were proud wearing it, whatever jersey it was, whether it was the Pride, the military night, the cancer nights,” he told reporters this week. “The story shouldn’t be about the guy that didn’t wear it, the one guy or the two guys. I understand that’s what gets the clicks and that’s what gets the views, but the word ‘distraction’ gets thrown around.
“I don’t think it had to have been a distraction. It could have been a non-issue while focusing on the good that was coming out of those nights.”
While that may be true, the NHL’s wrongheaded policy is also putting the focus on the small batch of players who don’t support the rainbow.
But brands, and sports leagues, are afraid of diving into divisive political issues. Pride Month was an all-out culture war this year, with conservatives deriding brands that sold Pride merch or partnered with LGBTQ celebrities. Nobody wants to be Bud Light, which is no longer America’s top-selling beer.
Then again, there’s no proof that pro leagues are facing any sort of consumer backlash for hosting Pride Nights. But the fear is enough to scare feckless commissioners away.
Look no further than Rob Manfred, who said this month MLB urged teams to avoid wearing Pride-themed uniforms to “protect players.”
And who are those players, you ask?
Those five Tampa Bay Rays pitchers who didn’t wear rainbow insignias last year. There was no public pushback about wearing Pride uniforms before that incident, and there hasn’t been any this season, either. But apparently, that one episode was enough for Manfred to instruct teams to tamper down the Pride celebrations.
Of course, there is far more to Pride Nights, and promoting LGBTQ inclusivity in sports, than rainbow uniforms. But discouraging their presence is a bow to the reactionary homophobes.
If Manfred wants an example of how to handle Pride pushback, he should look no further than the Los Angeles Dodgers, who went ahead and attracted nearly 50,000 fans to their Pride Night, despite weeks of controversy over their decision to honor the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Dodgers briefly bowed to the performative outrage and disinvited the Sisters before reversing course.
They were rewarded with a successful and celebratory evening.
— claudia gestro ? (@claudiagestro) June 17, 2023
Republicans are lying and saying Dodgers Stadium was “empty” last night during Pride Night.
Their evidence? Videos and photos taken before the game.
In reality, the game was sold out and photos and videos taken during the game show a packed house. Data shows that the Dodgers… pic.twitter.com/74asegnqqf
— MeidasTouch (@MeidasTouch) June 17, 2023
But when it comes to supporting LGBTQ people, male pro leagues are going backwards. Even the NBA, which proudly touts its progressive culture, isn’t coming down as hard on players for using gay slurs. Years ago, Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for calling a referee a gay slur, and Rajon Rondo was suspended for the same offense.
Yet last year, the NBA only docked Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards $40,000 for posting homophobic language on social media, and didn’t mention the LGBTQ community in its statement about the episode.
Two years ago, the NBA fined Kevin Durant just $50,000, and didn’t suspend him, for using some of the most graphic homophobic language we’ve ever seen from a pro athlete.
If one of the NBA’s stars protested wearing Pride paraphernalia, is there any doubt the league would accommodate him?
On the corporate level, the NFL pushes LGBTQ inclusion, as evidenced by its new line of Pride merchandise. But no team hosts any sort of Pride or LGBTQ-themed home game, and that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.
Leagues are more than happy to promote LGBTQ Pride when it’s easy. But when there’s pushback, they’ve shown this year they capitulate.