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Words Mean More Than You Think

Why wanting to eradicate certain words in sports is not an issue of being overly sensitive

Montreal Canadiens v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, video surfaced of Montreal Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw allegedly using homophobic language in the penalty box during a game against the Anaheim Ducks. The video led many on social media who read his lips to accuse the You Can Play LGBTQ ambassador of repeating an incident when he played for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016.

After an investigation, the NHL stated that they do not believe that Shaw used the slur that many were accusing him of, interviewing both the on-ice officials as well as the Anaheim penalty box attendant. Shaw has since issued a response to the investigation findings that, despite his past, can be considered thoughtful and shows that he has possibly learned from his experience and demonstrates self-awareness that he has not earned the benefit of the doubt from critics.

Yet, in the aftermath of the NHL statement, the Shaw statement, and several articles analyzing the situation, numerous social media users mounted their attack, calling out people who condemn this type of language using justifications like “people are too sensitive”, “keep identity politics out of sports”, and even the default, “stick to sports”. See the reactions on Twitter to ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski’s article on the situation for a look into the attacks.

This dialogue has been around for a long time, but has recently taken on new attention and significance in an increasingly volatile political and societal climate. Our friends at Five For Howling recently underwent similar criticism when they published an article about the Pittsburgh Penguins decision to visit The White House.

The common thread I get out of the reactions to these ideas is that many people either do not understand why certain types of language need to be eradicated from sports or believe that sports should be an escape and that no matter what happens on the field or ice, we should keep “politics” out of it.

I want to be clear that I am a straight, white, American male who has been extremely fortunate in the opportunities I have been provided in my life. I have faced very minimal discrimination to my knowledge, and thus cannot claim to fully understand what struggles people of color or people in the LGBTQ community go through on a day-to-day basis.

What I can offer, however, is a sense of empathy towards these groups. Recognizing that these people, many of whom are friends and colleagues, do experience hardships at one point or another (and oftentimes on a daily basis) due to either the color of their skin or how they identify themselves on a personal level and acknowledging the harmful affects it can have is something that I believe can be demonstrated by anyone if they so choose.

We as humans cannot tell others how to form emotional responses. You can't know how someone will feel when they hear homophobic and racist speech, no matter the context. There are certain terms in the English language that have been used for years that come from such an awful, hateful and oftentimes violent place that those of us who are not part of these communities cannot even begin to imagine the hurt and suffering they bring to people in those groups.

Chances are, there is a person of color or an LGBTQ person you know who has been on the receiving end of terms like the ones used by Andrew Shaw or Ryan Getzlaf or others. In my experience these terms were usually directed at these individuals in a very hostile and bullying context.

“But these players aren’t using these terms in a homophobic manner. They’re just saying things in the heat of the moment stop being so sensitive”.

If I had a goal for every time I’ve heard that response in some form or another I’d blow past Wayne Gretzky's career record.

The fact of the matter is that players, while not intending to be homophobic when letting these words fly, illustrate the issue of many people not truly understanding the context of the word they are using and the weight it carries to those who may be watching them. That there continues to be a distinct lack of empathy as well as a lack of ingrained knowledge with regards to these words and their usage, despite the fact that these terms carry so much negativity to those who have been torn down by them, proves that there is a tremendous amount of work still to do.

It is possible, while admittedly difficult, for people to learn, change, and grow from these experiences. Shaw’s statement regarding last weekend’s incident is indicative of that, though that still does not earn Shaw the benefit of the doubt and likely won’t for some time, if at all.

And to those of you who have your “stick to sports” response primed: I really don’t care, and you are free to use another outlet to get your sports news if you so choose. Basic decency and empathy is something that should permeate every single aspect of the human experience. There is not some magical “barrier” around this that mandates we not talk about societal issues when sports are literally born out of human nature and society itself.

And no, this is not a case of “identity politics”. Empathy towards other human beings is not a political stance and anyone who thinks it is probably needs to re-evaluate their moral complex.

Those who criticize the league, sports writers, fans, and even players who attempt to speak out against this kind of language seem to take offense to the fact that people are being “too soft”. If you are one of these people, I encourage you to look in the mirror. I hope you realize that you are asking us not to be offended at a set of words, when you yourself appear to be offended by our words condemning them.

I hope you can recognize what many of your fellow humans have gone through when they hear these words. Realize that although you may not have directly experienced the use of these terms in an explicitly derogatory way, that there are plenty who have and feel less human because of it.

I hope that if you truly care about your fellow humans, that you can understand why we look to eradicate this type of language from the sports we pour our entire being into so that as many of them can experience the same joy and escape it brings us day in and day out.

In a world that feels as harrowing as a Shea Weber slapshot headed right for you, let’s make sports a place that feels like the first lift of the Stanley Cup. For everyone.