“STICKS AND STONES may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
So goes the adage we all learned as children – usually taught to us by protective parents attempting to soothe our hurt feelings over an insult received in the unkind world beyond the cozy confines of our home.
When words are used as weapons, they hurt, they sting and they leave long-lasting scars. A physical blow has an immediate effect; it may, indeed, break our bones. But our bodies heal, bones mend and bruises fade.
Not so with words. Heard once, they take root in our memories. We can incorporate their inflicted wound as part of our psychological makeup. Their impact can last years – even a lifetime.
Language is always playing catch-up with evolving cultural norms and changes in social ways of being. We’ve become used to this phenomenon in racial relations and how the majority racial group was no longer able to refer – without consequence – to minority racial groups with words chosen to hurt, dismiss and demean.
Words used as weapons hurt, sting and take root in our memories. On a playground or in a professional arena, there can be no room for slurs
We’re witnessing the same evolution – long overdue – in how words and name-calling are treated as unacceptable when dealing with sexual orientation. It’s no longer tolerated when language is used to place an individual on the outside of society by highlighting the most intimate manifestation of their identity as if it were something of which to be ashamed.
The world of male professional sports has sometimes been considered the last frontier when it comes to the dearth of athletes willing to publicly come out as gay. They fear what it may mean to their careers or simply to their comfort level as individuals working in an industry not known for its progressive attitudes.
Slowly but surely, that may be changing. Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf was fined $10,000 by the National Hockey League for directing a vulgar “homophobic slur” at an official during Game 4 of the Western Conference final against the Nashville Predators. That came on the heels of the Toronto Blue Jays levying a two-game suspension on outfielder Kevin Pillar for likewise directing a “homophobic slur” at Atlanta Braves pitcher Jason Motte after a disappointing turn at bat.
The You Can Play Project was co-founded by Calgary Flames president Brian Burke and his son, Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke. Their mission is to make the world of professional sports more welcoming by calling out and addressing homophobia. They tweeted: “Words matter and Ryan Getzlaf’s words are offensive. No language considered homophobic belongs in sports. It’s not the language of role models.”
No, it’s not. But it is still the language of the playground, the junior high, the locker room and sometimes the workplace. The institutional responses of Major League Baseball and the NHL are encouraging, as are the responses of both athletes involved.
Getzlaf and Pillar publicly apologized and neither sought to justify their actions or diminish the hurtful impact of the words they used. Whether that was due to legitimate and genuine personal remorse at the realization of the harm their words can cause, or a strategic public relations pivot is impossible to know.
Clearly, social pressure and evolving ideas of what speech is acceptable have an enormous impact on creating safe environments.
We have come a long way. We still have a long way to go. But at least the vast majority of us seem to be on the same page.
We may not be able to change everyone’s hearts and minds – but with continued vigilance, we can at least make people think twice about what comes out of their mouths.
Gavin MacFadyen is a Canada-raised, U.S.-based writer and occasional lawyer.
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