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Column: The NHL's performative activism isn't good enough

SPORTS-HKN-FLYERS-TORTORELLA-PROVOROV-PH
Flyers coach John Tortorella defended Ivan Provorov for what he called a personal decision. Photo Courtesy of Yong Kim/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS.

The first National Hockey League pride night I ever went to was in 2018. I was thrilled to be there. My first favorite team, the Carolina Hurricanes, was playing my third favorite team, the Vancouver Canucks, and it was pride night. As a 15-year-old in the midst of questioning her own sexuality, who could ask for more? That night meant everything to me.  

The NHL launched "Hockey Is For Everyone" — a campaign designed to promote diversity in the league for all sexual orientations, genders and ethnicities, in February 2017. By the next year, all 31 teams hosted a pride or inclusion night during their 2017-2018 season. 

But even before that, in 2013, the NHL became an official partner of the You Can Play Project, a campaign dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports. This made the NHL the first major American professional sports league to partner with an LGBTQ+ outreach organization. The You Can Play Project was founded by Brian Burke, the current president of hockey operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The organization was formed in memory of Burke’s son, Brendan, who died in a car accident in 2010 — about a year after he publicly came out as gay. 

Despite not having any games in June, the NHL has still consistently made an effort to celebrate pride during their seasons. 

As we enter the latter half of the 2022-2023 season, NHL pride nights are now in full swing. Last week, the Philadelphia Flyers’ pride night made headlines when defenseman Ivan Provorov refused to participate in pregame warmups, in which all players wore pride-themed jerseys. He cited his religious faith as being the reason he could not participate, saying to reporters after the game, “I respect everybody. I respect everybody’s choices. My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion.” 

I've noticed my friends and people my age are becoming more invested in hockey and the sport's culture. Thus, it’s not exactly a shock that Provorov faced backlash for his refusal to participate in pride night. 

However, through the backlash, Philadelphia’s head coach John Tortorella came to Provorov’s defense, saying “he’s being true to himself and his religion," and it’s actually "one thing [he] respect[s]” about Provorov. The NHL then issued a statement that echoed a similar sentiment to Tortorella’s — “players are free to decide which initiatives to support and we continue to encourage their voices and perspectives on social and cultural issues." 

Yes, the NHL dabbles in rainbow capitalism and performative activism: players donned in pride-themed jerseys, their sticks wrapped in rainbow tape and limited-time fan merchandise complete with the team’s logo in rainbow. But I'm not convinced that’s the issue here. 

The issue comes when they preach messages of acceptance and inclusion, but then turn around and refuse to hold bigots accountable for their actions. The NHL should not be playing both sides – if you’re going to celebrate pride, stand up to homophobia in your organization. Part of celebrating pride is educating yourself and that means recognizing that the “it’s just against my religion” argument is a homophobic one.

I’m not saying Provorov isn’t entitled to his own beliefs – but his freedom of expression of his beliefs does not shield him from criticism. And if the message of “Hockey Is For Everyone” campaign means anything to Tortorella, the Philadelphia Flyers and the NHL as a whole, they will use this opportunity to hold Provorov accountable. 

Perhaps I’m too much of an optimist, but I think we would all be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the small strides the league has taken over the past six years to celebrate LGBTQ inclusion in the sport – especially when other pro-sports leagues in the U.S. are seriously lacking. If anything, I think players like Provorov and the subsequent missteps of the Philadelphia Flyers and the NHL can be used as an opportunity for growth. 

So NHL, it’s your move. Be better. 

@dthopinion

opinion@dailytarheel.com

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