Avery-one Has An Opinion: Twitter, Same-Sex Marriage, and the NHL


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Presentation given at the 2011 North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) Conference in Minneapolis, MN on Thursday, November 3, 2011.

The focus of this presentation is on the Twitter reaction to the Sean Avery's Summer 2011 PSA supporting marriage equality, as well as the controversy surrounding Uptown Hockey's "marriage" tweet, and what this means for the perception of the NHL as a homophobic culture.

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  • According to Eric Anderson (2011), we live in a post-homohysteric world, or one where our local cultures are increasingly comfortable with open homosexuality. One of those cultures is professional sport. While there have certainly been public intolerances of homophobic behaviour in the NFL and the NBA, in the NHL, the fan perception still seems to be of a primarily homophobic culture. In this presentation, we will focus on a recent NHL incident involving much hated enforcer Sean Avery, and attempt to uncover if and how fans’ behaviour indicates that the culture of professional hockey is ready to accept open homosexuality.

    We’re still in the early stages of our research so any comments, suggestions or directions would be most appreciated.
  • Before we get into the events of this past summer, let’s talk about Sean Avery. Even amongst non-hockey fans, Avery’s name is synonymous with annoyance. He’s, for lack of a better word, a pest, on the ice and off the ice. On the ice, there’s the Brodeur incident, where Avery stood in front of the New Jersey Devils goalie flailing his arms to prevent him from seeing the puck… legally. No one had ever thought to do that before – it just wasn’t part of hockey player culture to “insult” the game in that way. Following this incident, the NHL created the so-called Avery rule that made this kind of goaltender annoyance a penalty.
    Off the ice, I’m sure several of us remember Avery’s “sloppy seconds” comment. In a post-practice interview in 2008, Avery commented on opponent Dion Phaneuf’s choice of girlfriends. He was dating Elisha Cuthbert at the time, whom Avery had dated previously. To the media, Avery said “I'm just going to say one thing. I'm really happy to be back in Calgary; I love Canada. I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about, but enjoy the game tonight.” Another controversy, and another checkmark for his bad boy reputation.
    The other way Avery is a non-traditional hockey player is his personal involvement in the fashion industry. Sure, some guys lend their name to designer collections, but Avery has such a deep passion for fashion that in the summer of 2008, he was an intern at the prestigious Vogue Magazine. This was the first step towards revamping the Avery reputation to what we have today. Not quite a good boy, but not quite a bad boy either.

    The incident we’re concern with starts in Summer 2011, when Avery recorded a PSA for the New Yorkers for Marriage Equality campaign. Let’s watch the video.
  • This video was posted to YouTube on May 5th. Interestingly, there was little to no reaction to this PSA, both in mainstream media and on social media. The news that Sean Avery supported marriage equality came as no surprise, since he had briefly addressed the issue when discussing his Vogue internship. Then, on May 9th, Todd Reynolds from Uptown Hockey sparked the incident, the timeline of which you can see on this slide.
  • This is the tweet that started it all. Said Todd Reynolds,


    Within seconds, reactions came streaming in from the general public on Twitter, many disagreeing with the comment, some agreeing, and most retweeting it. I don’t have any confirmed numbers to share, but we have collected data on these reactions for further analysis. I do remember watching the feeds as the story developed and being amazed at the pace and the depth of responses, from single tweets with strong sentiments to series of tweets actually addressing the issues of marriage equality, homophobia in the NHL, and free speech. Other topics included the lack of business smarts behind making such a polarizing comment from an official corporate account, and several users actually called out players being represented by this agency, asking them to drop the company in support of marriage equality. As far as I know, only one player dropped Uptown Hockey around that time, but his contract with the firm was expiring then, so it’s hard to say if there was a direct link there.
  • As you can see, the backlash was also immediate and strong in the professional sports industry, with other agents getting involved. If you don’t know who Burke was, we’ll get into it in a few slides.
  • The most notable reactions to Uptown Hockey’s tweet were those from Phoenix Coyotes player and active Tweeter Paul Bissonnette, or BizNasty, as he is commonly referred to. BizNasty was one of the only players to come out strongly in support of Avery’s PSA during the incident, though some did offer support later. This is likely due to Bissonnette’s deep engagement with the medium.

    But without a doubt, the most important reaction came from another player agency, Norton Sports. Once again, one of the founding agents used his voice on an official corporate account. However, the reaction to Norton’s tweet was overwhelmingly positive, and it quickly became a competitor to Uptown’s original tweet in terms of retweets and reactions. Norton sent out several tweets with this sentiment, and retweeted many fans, agents, and others who opposed Uptown’s statement, also commenting on the poor business judgment of their competitor.
  • One hour later… TODD REYNOLDS once again took to the Uptown Sports account in an attempt to clarify his position. As you can see, instead of making the situation better, this once again led to a flurry of sarcastic responses, and the Twitter community certainly did not see the difference between the earlier statement and the clarification. The question being posed by many was one focused on equal rights rather than personal beliefs – if Reynolds thought everyone was equal then how could he deny equal rights and then claim not to be discriminating? The positive aspect of this new tweet was that it re-positioned the discussion towards the PSA’s campaign rather than the validity of one’s beliefs.
  • On the day of the incident, The National Post spoke to Uptown’s president DON REYNOLDS who is Todd’s father, to see whether or not he endorsed his son’s comments.
    He dug the hole a little deeper, and said:
    “It’s sad. I mean, my personal position is that I do not support gay marriage, and I think it’s wrong, as well. It’s not politically correct to, I guess, give your opinion about a thing like that. It’s politically correct on the other side, for people to say, ‘sure, I support gay marriage.’ But the majority, I think, of Canadians would say that they don’t agree with gay marriage – that man and woman were created to be married, not man and man or man and horse, you know?”

    Later that day, the newly launched TSN Radio invited Todd Reynolds to clear the air on the show Cybulski & Company. This was the first time that Todd had spoken to the media about the incident. Here’s a clip from the interview, which starts with Cybulski explaining that the issue is really about equal rights.


    Interestingly, elsewhere in the interview, Reynolds emphasizes the importance of discussing social issues like these, and respecting both majority and minority opinions in a debate without resorting to hateful, unprofessional language like calling him a bigot or homophobic. Reynolds seems to indicate that he has no problem with men and women being couples and having legal rights as long as they’re not raising children, because that would be wrong. If Avery can speak out for one side of the issue, he says, so can I.
  • After the video was released, and throughout the whole incident, Avery was silent. Even days after the blow-up, when mainstream media was still analyzing the timeline and impact of the Twitter snowball effect, Avery was nowhere to be found. Of course, this PSA was posted in the dying days of winter, just when the Stanley Cup Playoffs were ramping up, and Avery’s team, the New York Rangers were not in the running, which meant Avery had no media obligations. Whether it was intentional or out of necessity or an unwillingness to get involved in the controversy, Avery’s silence had two implications:
    We can assume that he wanted the video to stand for itself, that it said everything that needed to be said, and
    That he received good advice to stay out of the fray until things quieted down.

    Indeed, this incident may have served as a catalyst of sorts for the discussion of homophobia in the NHL to take place, as several players, managers, and media members were asked to comment on their personal beliefs about marriage equality.
  • Let’s talk about the issues now.

    There is most definitely a culture of silence when it comes to gay identities in the NHL, and it restricts the intrusion of openly gay athletes in the sport. In Anderson’s 2005 book “In the Game”, a closeted NHL player discussed his fears of losing respect and ice time by coming out, though he was certain his teammates would defend him if he were targeted on the ice. According to this player, there are several dozen NHL players who frequent gay bars, and they have to manage their multiple identities. In order not to stick out, this player tells Anderson that his public acts conform to masculine ideals, and he has sex with women so that he meets the expectations of professional hockey player identity.
    Literature on the relationship between sport and men’s masculinities throughout the 1990s highlighted that, in competitive team sports, boys and men were constructed to exhibit, value, and reproduce orthodox notions of masculinity. Sport was also used in promoting men’s patriarchal privilege over women. Messner, Pronger, and others have shown that sport—particularly team sports—traditionally associate boys and men with masculine dominance by constructing their identities and sculpting their bodies to align with hegemonic perspectives of masculinist embodiment and expression.
    Nowhere is this quite as evident than in hockey, or at least, that’s the fan perception. Hockey players encourage others to “toughen up” through the simultaneous assertion of heterosexual desire and homosexual disgust, with normalized utterances of “fag” and “gay” being used in locker room banter. Players learn to adopt homophobic scripts not only from other players, but from coaches who use this language to motivate players into being more aggressive, competitive, strong, and masculine.  

    Messner confirmed this perception in 1992. He wrote: “The extent of homophobia in the sports world is staggering. Boys (in sport) learn early that to be gay, to be suspected of being gay, or even to be unable to prove one’s heterosexual status is not acceptable”  
    Beside the anti-gay banter found in the locker room, there is also the misguided perception that all gay men must be predators, and therefore the communal showers are typically feared as a place for attack by a homosexual player. This is often the argument used to force gay players to hide or even quit the sport, though Anderson’s interviewee says the use of such slurs in the NHL locker room is surprisingly low, as many players will not tolerate homophobic language.

    But it is essentially these fears that lead Brendan Burke to quit hockey while in high school. This came to as a shock to his family, as the Burkes are perhaps one of the “royal” families of the professional hockey world. It took him nearly two years to tell his family why, and then two more to come out publicly. He did just that on ESPN in November 2009. It was a watershed moment for the NHL since before Brendan, nobody affiliated with the NHL—active, retired, or dead—was out as gay. And it became a big story not just because of Brendan’s hockey connection, but because of his father’s Brian Burke’s prestige.

    At the time, Brendan was the manager of the Miami (Ohio) NCAA Hockey Team and as a result, their team culture changed and they’ve stated they would welcome an openly gay player. Assistant Captain Andy Miele has become an outspoken advocate for acceptance of homosexuality, and not just in sports. A close friend of Burke’s, Miele remembers times dancing with his gay friend at a local bar; and he doesn’t care who knows it.
    Interestingly, Miele’s agent is Scott Norton of Norton Sports!
    Sadly less than 3 months after shattering the “gay barrier” in hockey, Brendan Burke died in a car accident during a snow storm. His legacy is one of the reasons why defenseman Brent Sopel of the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks took his wife, his four children and the Stanley Cup to the Pride Parade in Chicago in June 2010:
    He said, "When Brendan came out, Brian stood by him, and his whole family stood by him, like every family should. We teach our kids about accepting everybody. Tolerate everybody, to understand where everyone is coming from."
    So perhaps hockey was beginning to change. Indeed a February 2006 poll in Sports Illustrated magazine may have foreshadowed this shift. Over one thousand professional team sport athletes were surveyed, and 80% of respondents in the National Hockey League said they would welcome a gay teammate.
     And the player Anderson interviewed thought so too, saying that at the NHL level, “we’re all professionals”, though there are clearly still homophobic players, especially in the minor leagues.
  • As sexual orientation is “inner” and not as readily apparent as the “outer” racial characteristics, many scholars believe that L-G-B-T rights as a civil right is seen as debatable. And white male athletes seem to exhibit disproportionate degrees of homophobia compared to their attitudes toward racial minorities. Indeed, as Connell stated in 1995, while hegemonic masculinity as displayed in sport often includes achieved variables and attitudes such as athletic ability, the presentation of a masculine identity, and the maintenance of homophobia… it also includes ascribed variables such as whiteness, heterosexuality, and youth.

    All sports have had their up and downs in relation to these issues. In the NHL, there’s the standard non-discrimination statement in the Constitution and the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but that’s about it in terms of dealing with homophobia.

    The NBA in particular has focused a lot of effort on distancing itself from the statements from athletes such as Tim Hardaway who in 2007 stated "I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I am homophobic. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States.” Since then, the NBA has issued significant fines for homophobic slurs, such as Kobe Bryant’s 1 hundred thousand dollar fine for "offensive and inexcusable" comments after calling the ref a "faggot” in April 2011.

    And the Phoenix Suns created a series of ads to help combat homophobic talk in youth, timely given that their president and CEO Rick Weltz is one of the only openly gay sport executives after coming out earlier this year. Most recently, former NBA all-star and now sportscaster, Charles Barkely, said "It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say, 'Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.' First of all, quit telling me what I think. I'd rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can't play.”

    But as John Amaechi told USA Today after the Bryant incident, “Sports is still a place where there’s a home for homophobes.” Amaechi, who is gay, played five seasons in the NBA. He only came out publicly after his career ended

    The NFL has been less vocal in its support of gay rights with some notable exceptions:
    In June 2011, Steve Tisch said "As an owner of the New York Giants, I am proud to join the chorus of professionals in sports working for fairness both on and off the field. All New Yorkers should be able to marry the person they love. Now is the time.” This was followed by a statement from former NY Giants player, David Tyree, who said, "Gay marriage will lead us into anarchy.”

    In the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Joey Porter incurred the biggest fine, 10 thousand dollars, for using anti-gay language to describe an opposing player.
  • But in the NHL, it’s one step forward – two steps back

    You might remember an incident in the NHL preseason, when a fan threw a banana at the ice while Philadelphia Flyers player Wayne Simmonds, who is Black, was scoring the shootout-winning goal. The identity of the fan was unknown, and Norton Sports, the same agency that had opposed Uptown Sports’ marriage equality comments, encouraged the rage and controversy surrounding the incident to increase. They started the #RacistPig hashtag, a campaign for fans to provide information about the perpetrator’s identity which Norton would supposedly then pass on to the local police force so he could be “brought to justice” and “pay for his despicable actions”. They offered a 500 $ reward, which Twitter users quickly promised to increase.

    Though the Twitter reaction was certainly one of disappointment and disbelief, the hatred that Norton Sports incited made us question whether they are simply strong human rights advocates or whether they were seeking to cash in on the potential fandom rewards associated with these incidents.

    We raise this incident because Simmonds was involved in another incident two weeks later. After commenting on being used to “racist things”, he used a homophobic slur on Avery during an on-ice altercation. In this clip, you can clearly see him mouthing the words.


    Though we have yet to figure out what this means in the context of our paper, it is certainly interesting that a player who faces discrimination would be willing to impose that discrimination on others. Whether it’s just “one of those things that gets said in the heat of the action”, as Simmonds implied, or whether the meanings are so deeply rooted in NHL culture that they have lost their sexual connotation, the fact remains that homophobic slurs are tolerated in the NHL. Simmonds was not fined for the comment, despite the evidence. As for Avery, his only reaction was to confirm that Simmonds had indeed used the slur with a simple “yeah”.
  • Based on the Twitter content we collected, it seems that most fans perceive NHL culture to be fairly homophobic. But is this simply a perception or is it an accurate representation of the sentiment in the league?

    Professional hockey player culture in North America encourages a polite, modest player, and so the NHL hasn’t had any open statements of homosexual hatred. In fact, before Burke and Avery, few discussed the issue at all. Based on the two incidents we presented here and the lack of outcry or discipline by NHL administration, we believe that the policy statements are just that, and that homophobia needs to be openly discussed and dissected in the NHL context before it can be addressed as a problematic issue with wider implications.

    The fan reaction on Twitter certainly seems to indicate that these cultural changes are taking place in NHL culture but without mediatization, the NHL will continue to be perceived as a homophobic pro sports league, and certainly one that perpetuates hegemonic masculinity discourses.
  • Avery-one Has An Opinion: Twitter, Same-Sex Marriage, and the NHL

    1. 1. Avery-one has an opinion: Twitter, Same-Sex Marriage and the NHL NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011 Ann Pegoraro, Laurentian University Naila Jinnah, Queen’s University
    2. 2. About Sean Avery • From pest to activist • New Yorkers for Marriage Equality (PSA - Summer 2011) NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
    3. 3. Twitter Reaction Timeline ①Uptown Hockey tweet ②Backlash from industry and fans ③In comes Norton Sports ④Twitter support for Norton/Avery ⑤Backtracking attempt by Uptown ⑥Mass media coverage (TSN) ⑦Avery Silence ⑧Avery incident as catalyst NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
    4. 4. Uptown Hockey: Spark NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
    5. 5. Industry Backlash Hockey Player Agent Andrew Warren Hockey Player Agent Alec Schell NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
    6. 6. In Comes Norton Sports… ... and Phoenix Coyotes Player + active Twitter user Paul Bissonnette NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
    7. 7. Just To Clear Things Up… NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
    8. 8. Mass Media Coverage • National Post: “… man and woman were created to be married, not man and man or man and horse, you know?” - Don Reynolds • TSN Radio: NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
    9. 9. Twitter Reaction Timeline ①Uptown Hockey tweet ②Backlash from industry and fans ③In comes Norton Sports ④Twitter support for Norton/Avery ⑤Backtracking attempt by Uptown ⑥Mass media coverage ⑦Avery Silence ⑧Avery incident as catalyst NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
    10. 10. Homophobia in the NHL • Culture of silence • Hegemonic masculinity • Homophobia in locker rooms, on ice – “gay”, “fag”: just banter – Shower predators • Pride & the NHL – Brendan/Brian Burke – Sopel @ Chicago Pride Parade NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
    11. 11. Homophobia in pro sport today • Not as visible as race – Outer vs. Inner • NHL: Apparent tolerance of homophobic slurs • NBA: Discipline for slurs – $100,000 fine: Kobe Bryant – Openly gay team president • NFL: Less vocal discipline – $10,000 fine: Joey Porter NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
    12. 12. One step forward, two steps back ①Simmonds’ banana-throwing incident ②Norton Sports’ #RacistPig campaign ③Two weeks later: “Fucking Faggot” slur NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
    13. 13. Further Directions • Did anything change between incidents? • Was Avery targeted because of his rights history? • Will NHL’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy be repealed: – in the eyes of fans? – in the locker room and on the ice? – through firmer NHL discipline? • What role will social media and fan pressure play? NASSS Conference, Minneapolis, MN, 2011
    14. 14. Questions? Naila Jinnah MA Candidate, Queen’s University RA, Institute for Sport Marketing Email: njinnah@gmail.com Twitter: @nailaj Ann Pegoraro, PhD Director, SPAD @ Laurentian University Director, Institute for Sport Marketing Email: apegoraro@laurentian.ca Twitter: @LU_SPAD See this presentation again: www.slideshare.net/nailaj