The media tempest over player agent Todd Reynolds's same-sex marriage (SSM) opinions illustrates that hockey is as secular as the nation that worships the sport. And that opinions on some hot-button opinions create uncomfortable questions for media about the limits of free speech in Canada.
Under the banner of his firm Uptown Hockey, Reynolds took issue with the decision of New York Ranger Sean Avery to publicly back SSM. "Very sad to read Sean Avery's misguided support of same-gender 'marriage'. Legal or not, it will always be wrong" Reynolds tweeted Monday. In further tweets, Reynolds declared he was not against gays but giving the legal definition of marriage to same-sex couples "I believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. This is my personal viewpoint. I do not hate anyone."
His father, fellow agent Don Reynolds, then waded into the deep end, with a possible comparison between gay marriage and bestiality. In a nation that made gay marriage legal in the past decade, that's waving a red flag at liberal progressives. To say nothing of a curious business decision to link your agency with an issue that compares to abortion, capital punishment and gun control in terms of volatility. But once Reynolds put SSM in the hockey realm, there was nothing but to address it.
Reynolds's comments drew derisive responses from the media and blogosphere - particularly, though not exclusively, in Canada. Bruce Arthur of The National Post is typical of those media who cared to opine. He tweeted, "It shouldn't be up to Brian Burke to carry the NHL's anti-homophobia flag alone against bigots like @uptownhockey. Please weigh in, hockey."
Washington-based blogger Greg Wyshynski (Puckdaddy) posted, "When @uptownhockey isn't repping NHL players it's bashing gays and marriage equality." The criticism went viral across social media, almost all of it damning for Reynolds.
There was no lack of celebration for the public piling on, too. Adam Proteau of The Hockey News tweeted, "Hey Twitter hockey community - pretty damn proud of you for letting @uptownhockey have it with both barrels today. *Standing O*". Sean Fitz-Gerald of the Post joined in with a "*stands, applauds loudly* tweet.
But, Reynolds asked on TSN Radio 1050, what ever happened to equal time? "If Sean Avery or any other player can comment on one side of the discussion then - I work in hockey, I'm in hockey 24-7 - why can I not comment on it as well?" (Reynolds did get support from sports anchor Damian Goddard of Rogers Sportsnet, a Christian who ventured "I completely and whole-heartedly support Todd Reynolds and his support for the traditional and TRUE meaning of marriage.")
This is where things get opaque. Under the U.S. First Amendment, Reynolds would have support for expressing his religious opinions. Reynolds' opinion on SSM is not as novel in the United States, where gay marriage is legal only in certain jurisdictions, and where expressions of faith are common on sports TV. Players often cite scripture or point to heaven to underline their faith.
In Canada, however, many hockey players hold strong religious views but rarely expose them to media scrutiny. It's not the done thing in a country fused in the 19th century by an uneasy marriage between Catholic Quebec and the Protestants on her borders. (According to the last available polling in 2009, approximately a third of Canadians agree with Reynolds and Goddard on SSM, down from about 47 per cent in 2005.)
So where should domestic media position itself? In Canada, human rights commissions have lately been interpreting such "hate speech" matters on an ad-hoc basis, at times ruling that civil rights supersede religious freedoms - even though almost all Canada's mainstream churches stand against SSM. While the claim that hate speech incites more hate is unsettled (the Weimar Republic in 1930s Germany had some of the strictest hate-speech laws ever), with few exceptions mainstream Canadian media have not questioned the authority of these commissions.
This has mostly produced a don't ask/don't tell accommodation between the sides on the issue of SSM and free speech. But Reynolds's comments illustrate how paper-thin the accommodation is in Canada between the sides on civil rights and the right to worship. Even in sports, the supposed toy box of journalism, it can be a toxic topic.
Update: Rogers fired Damian Goddard on Wednesday. But, sources tell Usual Suspects, it was not because of his comments on the Reynolds issue. The decision had been made prior to his support for Reynolds's statements on SSM.
"Mr. Goddard was a freelance contractor and in recent weeks it had become clear that he is not the right fit for our organization," emailed Dave Rashford, Director of Communications for Rogers Sportsnet. "As this is a confidential personnel matter, we will not be commenting further except to say that views expressed by Mr. Goddard on Twitter are his own and do not reflect the views of Rogers or Rogers Sportsnet."
Sources say that Rogers' policy on social media is that no employee should express opinions on Twitter that they would not say live on air or in print. At press time we have not been able to contact Goddard.
Looking For Symbol: The irony in the debate is that hockey remains the most closeted of the pro sports. While former NBA, NFL and MLB players have come out, no NHLer on any description has ever confessed to being gay. Brendan Burke, the gay son of Toronto GM Brian Burke who died in 2010, was as close as the sport had to an outing.
Website Deadspin points out, "Unpopular opinions like Reynolds's are fresh meat for those on the periphery of the sport who would lionize an openly gay athlete, if only one existed. The problem remains that no gay hockey player has yet to feel comfortable enough to come out, so despite the chest-thumping progressiveness from the seats, the sea change will only come with attitudes in the locker room.
"It's nice to have the discussion, muted though it may be, but let's remember that the hockey community's tentative steps into this particular ethical arena have never amounted to anything more than making a martyr and shouting down a bigot. Since we don't have a gay hockey player to rally around, fans and media do the next best thing: We find a bad guy and inflate his importance. We rally around the bogeyman instead."
Turn Other Cheek: Coincidentally, former NFL star Mark Schlereth, who now works for ESPN and often tweets of his faith posted this: "markschlereth Lots! RT @Rachel2_22: @markschlereth Have you ever lost followers due 2 your Christian faith?"
It's A Great Life In The New Country, Episode 45,786: Winnipeg hockey fans anxious to learn whether they'll get the Phoenix Coyotes were able to follow the crucial council meeting Glendale, Arizona, via www.glendaleaz.com. Meanwhile the Winnipeg Free Press had a live blog of proceedings in the Phoenix suburb. Don't want to miss a single quorum!
Until the vote to save the Coyotes was made, listeners got to see something named Sludge from radio station KDKB-FM wearing red Coyotes sweater with No. 93. 3 while addressing Council. That left Greg Wyshynski to request a cameo from Coyotes enforcer Paul Bissonnette, aka @BizNasty2point0. "When does @BizNasty2point0 show up with army of homeless guys with clown noses like at the end of Patch Adams?" When indeed, they're still asking in Winnipeg.