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New York Rangers' Sean Avery during the second period of an NHL hockey game against Colorado on Monday, Oct. 18, 2010, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) (Frank Franklin II)
New York Rangers' Sean Avery during the second period of an NHL hockey game against Colorado on Monday, Oct. 18, 2010, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) (Frank Franklin II)

Stephen Brunt

Social media shines light on uncomfortable truths Add to ...

Here is the great, unintended consequence of the invention of social media: It has opened a window on the world as it really is.

Certainly there is a performance aspect to it, like a cocktail party conversation. But the ability now to instantly opine on anything in front of a vast, virtual audience seems to inspire unvarnished, unedited thought. Pump it out fast, off the top of your head, and humanity is revealed as the intelligent and witty and thoughtful and vain and dumb and mean-spirited crazy quilt that it is. (Would that Marshall McLuhan was still around to explain it all.)

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In the subset of professional sport, all of that new frankness comes as a bit of a shock. For at least the past 20 years, so much of its communication process has involved strict message control - media consultants coaching athletes to speak only in sound bites, only in clichés, and organizations making sure that happens only in the most stage-managed of circumstances - making it near impossible to glean whether any of them ever had an actual thought about anything other than playing one game at a time.

Now, thanks mostly to Twitter.com, there's a free flow of ideas out there, and you can actually learn things from it.

You can learn, for instance, from his feed, that Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall is an interesting, unconventional guy who has at least a toe in the burgeoning conspiracy theory obsession that seems to have shanghaied political discourse in the United States. You certainly wouldn't get that out of a postgame dressing room "scrum."

And you can learn that any notion of an openly gay active athlete being accepted - let alone embraced - in traditional North American team sports is still farfetched, especially in hockey.

To be accurate, it wasn't other athletes who tweeted their upset at New York Rangers forward Sean Avery's television commercial in support of a same-sex marriage initiative in New York State - it was a player agent, and a relatively obscure one at that. But the very fact it came not from an athlete but from a Canadian-based establishment figure in professional hockey is all the more telling.

The legalization of same-sex marriage is still a state-by-state political debating point in the U.S., which is the basis on which Avery entered the fray - a public policy discussion centre around extending the right to civil marriages to same-sex couples.

In Canada, though, that's been the law since 2005. And though the party which won a majority in Parliament last week is headed by a devoutly religious social conservative who is surrounded by many like-minded MPs, changing it was never part of their campaign agenda.

So, from a Canadian perspective, Avery was expressing a mainstream view, and even in the U.S., where, despite the legal separation of church and state, religion is very much part of the contemporary political subtext, most opinion polls suggest majority support for same-sex marriage.

Still, from his Twitter pulpit, Todd Reynolds felt moved to use his 140 characters to strike Avery down, and to let everyone know that in his mind there is a "right" and a "wrong" way for committed relationships between consenting adults to be recognized under the law of the land. (In a subsequent interview, his father, who runs the agency, equated same-sex marriage and bestiality.)

You might like to pretend we're past that kind of intolerance, faith-based or otherwise, though if that were true, there wouldn't be any need for something like the It Gets Better Project. Sadly, that's not the case.

But thanks to social media, an opinion that might have only been voiced in private, or in church, or within the kind of closed old boys' clubs that still rule professional sport - and a whole lot else - is exposed to the light of day, and to a huge, diverse audience.

Right to his opinion? Obviously. Respect for religious beliefs? Absolutely, as long as we all agree that this isn't a theocracy. The suggestion that said opinion on the sanctity of marriage isn't evidence of a broader streak of bigotry and homophobia? Come on, let's not pretend.

The chance that a now-closeted gay hockey player who chose to come out would be met with less hostility within the sport's closed universe than Avery was after making a rather benign public service announcement that supported what is the existing status quo in this country?

Zero.

Thank you, Twitter. Sometimes uncomfortable truths are the most important kind to understand.

 

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