I DON’T HATE. Simple as that. It’s too strong a word, too violent an emotion to indulge. I dislike strongly. I oppose firmly. I abhor, I loathe, I detest. I can even provide an example, or two, for the haters out there who would doubt me. For instance, I used to work for this Russian fella who would disparage me and my peers to others with great frequency and malice, write me emails questioning my commitment and intelligence, withhold funds owed to me, use back channels to kill my career opportunities, and when I finally left his sausage-fingered grasp he told my colleagues I had stolen money from him. A lot of money. But, I don’t hate him. I quietly encourage others to avoid him, I won’t raise a glass with, or to, him. I try to take a shot at him covertly in many of my writings, but mostly as a running joke and to maintain my sanity.
Hell, I don’t even hate any of my many ex-girlfriends, even the one who tried to have me killed, or the one who went out for a drink and never came back, or the one who stole my cat. I have problems with the concept of hate. And yet, as a sports fan, writer, enthusiast, it’s hard to ignore the fact that sport remains well behind the progress of the rest of the West in the dissemination and elimination of hate. For sport, is one of the last refuges of hate in modern Western society. And while I love it for so much of what it has provided me, I hate it for that.
There are many forms of hate in sport, but for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to ignore, for the most part, team-hate, or player-hate, or city-hate. Yes, the Habs hate the Leafs (and, c’mon, for good reason), Philadelphia hates New York, and everyone hates Boston. And, yes, nobody loves LeBron, and A-Rod is an abomination, and we’re less than impressed with Tiger, and we wouldn’t invite Roger Clemens over for a BBQ. But that’s not really hate. It’s hate-adjacent. It’s hate because we have vocabularies that lack imagination. Real hate, true hate, breeds vitriol and violence, and no one’s turning violent against Clemens, with the possible exception of his wife in the midst of a Mindy McCready-induced roid rage.
The hate I’m concerned with is the manifestation of racism, and sexism, and prejudice, within the sports community and discourse, and its inherent acceptance by society at large. Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball on April 15th, 1947. Willie O’Ree was the first African-American NHL player when he stepped on the ice for the Boston Bruins on January 18th, 1958. And yet, a half-century removed from these feats of humanity, these benchmarks of progress, we still get racists fans denigrating Joel Ward on Twitter, ignorant treatment of PK Subban, fans throwing bananas at Wayne Simmonds, players in blackface at team parties, and racist taunts on the ice. In many ways, in sport, it’s still 1950.
Nowhere is sexism more apparent and brazen than in sport. There is still segregation, from little leagues up through to professional leagues. Women are still subjected to media coverage which limits them to the context of sexuality and aesthetic, as opposed to ability and achievement. See: Patrick, Danica, or Kournikova, Anna. Hell, see all of women’s tennis. The manner in which sport is covered, broadcasted, and disseminated, too often leans towards juvenile frat-boy Maxim magazine tendencies. When Bill Simmons attempts to engage the sports discourse with conversation freckled in references to Hollywood starlets, pop ingénues, and cover models, he (and the many of his misguided brethren) reduces sport to an antiquated boys club mentality that retards its progression and alienates the reasonable and enlightened.
The CBC embarrassed themselves over the course of the NHL playoffs in introducing the abominable and abhorrent While the Men Watch, a parallel broadcast featuring two caricatures of housewives who discuss handbags, and Brazilian waxes, and boys as an alternative to the benign play-by-play ramblings of Jim Hughson and game analysis of Craig Simpson. You know, because girls don’t like sports except for cute asses and commercials, because it’s 1972, and we’re all stupid. There was uproar, but not enough. The CBC’s programming sexism was excused because it was just sports. Can you imagine a parallel broadcast of the National, where a couple of Lululemon-clad Vancouver housewives nattered on about hot yoga while Peter Mansbridge relayed important news to the men?
Often, and appallingly, the sexism is obvious and yet ignored. The biggest golf tournament in the world is the Masters, which is played at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Augusta National does not allow female members. Until 1990, it did not allow minority members and for most of its existence mandated that all caddies be black. Now, I understand that Georgia isn’t exactly the birthplace of social progress, but the fact that a golf club which hosts a tournament with an international audience, broadcasted by a major network, covered by quite nearly every media outlet on the planet, and the fact that it doesn’t permit half of the earth’s population to be members doesn’t come up too often in conversation, has to be a concern. And the fact that it isn’t is a concern, is a concern. Members of the exclusive club include Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Jack Welch, who while being complicit in sexism presumably have no issue with women using Microsoft products, investing monies, or driving Chevies.
The saddest, and most contemptible, realm of sport in which hate retards social progress is within the context of homosexual athletes, particularly in team sports in the major professional leagues. It is the year 2012. Sexuality is the new black. Too much of the West is against the notion of gay marriage, depriving the LGTB community of both universal equality and the misery of divorce. This weekend, much of the world will celebrated Pride with parades and fetes of social enlightenment. But, in sport, we are anything but enlightened. No NBA, MLB, NHL, or NFL player has come out of the closet while competing in one of the major four. A few have been brave enough to come out after their playing days are over; John Amaechi, Glenn Burke, Billy Bean, and David Copay to name a few. But the male dominated, hate-filled, anachronistic old boys clubhouse that is sport both oppresses and discourages gay players. This is the last barrier to break. The last hurdle of an unenlightened community. There is no way to measure the cultural importance of having a gay third baseman, goalie, quarterback, or point guard come out of the closet while playing. Its impact would be felt beyond sport, and would have equal, if not greater residual effect as the bravery of pioneers past like Robinson and O’Ree. And yet, we wait, because of all the value and joy of sport, its hate is currently stronger and more oppressive than its virtue.
But there is hope. Patrick and Brian Burke’s ambitious You Can Play Project, where pro hockey players participate in PSAs and campaigns to encourage accepted sexual diversity in sport, is a trailblazing organization whose mandate can have only positive effects. Perhaps it is initiatives like these as opposed to the burden of individual responsibility that will encourage a manifest change in the culture of sport, a new way of breaking barriers not as a person, but as a people.
Sport has been a leader in fostering change and yet too often in the quiet background of our most indecorous flaws. It exists in an almost parallel universe, where the inexcusable is often excused. In sport, the South has already risen. In sport, it’s “don’t ask, don’t tell”. A lot of the time it’s the failed results of what happens when men are allowed to play together outside of the influence and counsel of women. The hate is also a product of the divisive climate of the United States, where racism, prejudice, and sexism have not disappeared but rather exist under the guise of politics, jingoism, and protectionism.
Sport is an amazing entity. It has the power to unite, to enrich, to educate, and to empower. It has been at the forefront of nations’ proudest moments, and as the London 2012 Summer Olympics approach we are reminded of sports’ greatness, of Jesse Owens saluting the flag from a Munich podium, Tommie Smith and John Carlos with fists raised in Mexico City, of miracles on ice, of Derek Redmond and his dad finishing the 400 metre semi-final together in Barcelona. But a sea change must be on the horizon, to stop excusing flaws in light of tradition, and to ask more of that which has already given us so much.