Why NHL's Gay Rights Stance Is a Watershed Moment in Sports

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistApril 12, 2013

January 9, 2013; New York, NY, USA; National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman addresses the National Hockey League lockout during a press conference at the Westin New York in Times Square. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Momentum is gathering for a major athlete in North American professional sports to announce his homosexuality.

That athlete may or may not come from the NHL, but that league has set a new standard for advancing that historic announcement as a result of its partnership with the You Can Play Project.

The NHL is rarely known for its forward thinking or progressive attitudes. When the NHL makes publicity waves, it has often been for its neanderthal-like attitudes when it comes to fighting and brawling among its hard-hitting players or its long and stubborn player lockouts.

But when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA chief Donald Fehr can come to an agreement on the hot-button issue of gay rights, it's a watershed moment in sports.

The NHL is saying that it would support any player who came out publicly and announced that he is gay. What that means is that the league would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with that player and support his right to make a living as a professional hockey player without having to face harassment because of his sexuality.

That means the league would be forced to punish players who targeted a gay player—physically or emotionally.

That's strong stuff.

The NHL has set the bar for other professional leagues to follow. As rumors persist (h/t nytimes.com) that one or more NFL players will come out publicly as a gay athlete, the NHL is showing how an organization can support a player who makes such an announcement.

"As NHL players, we all strive to contribute towards helping our teams achieve success on the ice. Any player who can help in those efforts should be welcomed as a teammate," said Ron Hainsey of the Winnipeg Jets and an NHLPA Executive Board member. "This partnership solidifies the message that the hockey community believes in fairness and equality for everyone."

The You Can Play project was co-founded by Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers. He said that the make-up of the NHL's players—with so many players from Canada and Europe—made it a natural fit for the NHL and the NHLPA to step up.

“We have players from around the world, and a lot of those players are from countries that are seen as more progressive on L.G.B.T. (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) issues,” Burke told the New York Times.

Still, a player who reveals himself as gay in professional sports would undoubtedly face many challenges as he conducts his life in the public spotlight.

The NHL's partnership with the You Can Play Project won't make life easy for that athlete if he is a professional hockey player. However, that athlete will know that there is support from the league and that he is not alone if he decides to make his sexuality public.

That's a very progressive and positive step for a league that has not been associated with a lot of forward thinking in the past.