What, if anything, do pride games and pride nights in the NHL achieve? It’s a question we’ve all heard countless times in the stands, in sports bars, and have read on social media. To some, a single night with a message of inclusion is woefully inadequate; it’s the bare minimum a sports franchise can do to send a message that all fans can feel welcome. Others feel that such events are inappropriate at sporting events or are against them altogether.
On Wednesday, Australia’s Monash University shared the first academic study investigating if diversity-themed games can curtail discriminatory behavior. The results will be published in an academic textbook called “Sport Media Vectors: Digitization, Expanding Audiences, and the Globalization of Live Sport,” was edited by Laurel Walzak, a former NHL executive and now Assistant Professor at Ryerson University.
Specifically, the study focused on the use of homophobic language by players on eight teams in the Australian Ice Hockey League. It’s worth noting that more than one-quarter of the players in the league are from Canada or the United States. Through thorough analysis of press releases and messaging, the study found that the AIHL’s pride nights were similar to those seen in the NHL.
“Participants in the study who used a homophobic slur during a pride match compared the feeling to swearing in front of their grandmothers,” lead author Erik Denison said. “The games seem to help the players notice language they use which they describe as habitually. We were surprised by the results because most diversity education programs fail or have minimal impact on behaviors.”
From the university’s release:
The study found hockey players on teams that have held the games used 40% less homophobic language, with a minority (38%) of players on teams that have held LGBT pride games self-reporting they used homophobic slurs such as ‘fag’ in the past ‘two-weeks’ compared to 61% of players on teams that have not held these games. The research was supported by the Australian Government, Salesforce, You Can Play (LGBT sport charity), and Amnesty International.
As encouraging as these findings might be at first blush, there is a lot of work to be done to make sports venues more inclusive. Although the study points out the NHL has in many ways led the way in the sports world with pride events — the Florida Panthers hosted the first pride night on Oct. 19, 2013 — much of that credit belongs to the efforts of the You Can Play Project. Many fans who have attended a hockey game can likely attest to hearing homophobic, misogynistic, and racist language being heard either in the stands and on the ice. Hockey’s fight against homophobia is only just beginning.
Diversity and inclusivity are currently at the forefront of the hockey world with the recent creation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance and the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative. While there hasn’t been research done on how pride nights events can positively influence fans who attend the games, it’s worth noting that parasocial contact theory suggests that exposure to gay people and pro-gay messaging through mass media, like television shows, is associated with positive attitudes towards gay people. In other words, representation matters.
Pride games in the AIHL did not stop the use of homophobic language altogether, even among players who were playing for the team that hosted an event. That, in and of itself, makes it clear just how much work needs to be done to make hockey more welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
The study concludes with a directive that sports need to discontinue with positively-framed messaging during pride games — in other words, banal statements like “hockey is for everyone”. Instead, players will likely better understand homophobia’s hold on hockey and its implications through events like pride games if they are told what hate speech can do to the mental health of an LGBTQ teammate. It needs to be made real and relatable to them. It can’t just be about positive messaging.
What is perhaps most encouraging about the study’s findings is that it provides data to sports executives that pride events have the potential to actually move the needle. There is more to gain from hosting such events than just a boost in pride-themed merchandise sales. With further research and refinements in messaging and execution, it’s possible that these events could help change negative attitudes towards the LGBTQ community both on the ice and in the stands.