National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman recently indicated that, in light of the controversy surrounding some players’ refusal to participate in “Pride Nights,” the league would reevaluate whether to continue hosting such events. In theory, these themed games are aimed at demonstrating the hockey community’s tolerance, support, and possibly even celebration of LGBTQ individuals. But the reality is more complicated, and reflects the ongoing messiness of a popular culture that speaks the language of tolerance but is not well-trained in its practice.
Though most players donned rainbow-and-transgender-flag jerseys and taped their sticks with Pride colors, some religious players declined to do so. They explained that wearing those uniforms would transmit a message incompatible with their faith. These players have been uniformly gracious and respectful when articulating their objections. They have explained that they harbor no animosity toward gay people, and they support including LGBTQ individuals in hockey, but their consciences prevent them from celebrating homosexuality, transgenderism, or a host of substantive messages symbolized by the Pride colors.
In a culture better trained in the habits of pluralism, the Pride Nights would have proceeded without incident, with the dissenting players’ choices respected. If that had occurred, the events could have been a valuable showcase of how to respect LGBTQ individuals and religious people alike—and a model of how Americans who disagree on just about everything can nonetheless live together peacefully. The players wearing Pride uniforms and their religious teammates could have played side by side, showing that they remain united as a team despite disagreements over subjects that, while extremely important, have nothing to do with the game of hockey.
But liberalism is hardly the spirit of the age, and unfortunately that is not how things played out. Rather than allowing religious players to quietly follow their consciences, advocates and commentators portrayed them as dangerous heretics to progressive civic religion, who deserved punishment for refusing to agree to the binding principles of that secular faith.
As members of a minority religious group ourselves, we understand the importance both of promoting tolerance and of protecting minorities’ rights to engage in unpopular practices or to express dissenting views. Both of those ideals, which have been in tension with one another in the Pride Night controversy, must flourish in order to sustain a thriving democratic republic. Liberal coexistence requires us to act civilly toward one another despite having deep-rooted disagreements regarding some of the most fundamental aspects of human life. We suggest that, while difficult, this is indeed possible. And until the promotional events actually advance tolerance rather than a rising cultural orthodoxy, they are probably best put on hiatus.
Our organization, the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, proudly defends the rights of Wiccans, Native Americans, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, and many denominations of Christians. We have also opposed members of our own faith when we thought they were illegitimately trying to impose their interpretation of Judaism on others. Our goal is to create a vibrant, free, and diverse public square regardless of whether we agree with a religious adherent or speaker whose rights we are defending. That pluralistic ethos can be instructive here.
It is perfectly understandable that LGBTQ people, and advocates for their causes, would not celebrate those who refused to wear Pride jerseys. It is reasonable too that they would hope to change those players’ hearts and minds, by explaining that the players have misunderstood the Pride flag, its message, or its relative importance in the hierarchy of human goods. But what actually occurred blew right past persuasion, bursting into a concerted attempt to demonize and punish the players, revealing that this conflict is not between two sets of ideas but between the competing dogmas of a secular-humanist majority and minority traditional religions, with the majority returning to the pre-liberal playbook of inquisition, coercion, and attempted forced conversions.
Ivan Provorov was the first NHL player to conscientiously object to wearing a pride uniform. When pressed for comment, he responded, “I respect everyone. I respect everybody’s choices,” but he objected to wearing a Pride uniform for religious reasons. He did not try to exercise a veto over anyone else’s choices. Someone in this situation was trying to impose their beliefs on others, and it was not the Christian.
The response was swift and terrible. In addition to denouncing Provorov as a hateful bigot who didn’t even think that LGBTQ people should be allowed to exist, prominent hockey commentators exclaimed that he should face substantial penalties. One Canadian broadcaster suggested that Provorov be fined a million dollars. Several hockey journalists suggested that Provorov should have been benched in retaliation. An NHL Network analyst made xenophobic comments that if Provovov couldn’t acculturate himself to the way we do things here in the West, he should “get on a plane” and go back to Russia—and maybe even join the war effort against Ukraine.
One might have hoped that things would improve after the first incident, given the unhinged reaction and the glaring hypocrisy of trying to ruin someone’s career for expressing a widely held view that is unpopular in elite circles. Maybe the commentators and advocates had simply overreacted in the heat of the moment. Maybe, given some time and distance, they would behave more civilly the second time around. Sadly not.
The second player to decline to wear the uniforms was James Reimer. Reimer explained that while his conscience would not allow him to wear a Pride uniform, “I strongly believe that every person has value and worth, and the LGBTQIA+ community, like all others, should be welcomed in all aspects of the game of hockey.” Reimer was met with vitriol and denunciation. The commentators broadcasting his game condemned his conscientious objection and even described it as “the bigger topic of tonight.” Ironically, while denouncing Reimer for quietly following his faith, the president of the Pittsburgh Penguins exclaimed that Pride Nights are “about inclusion and welcoming everyone.” The press even speculated that Reimer’s decision could affect his ability to continue playing in the NHL after his current contract expires. This sends a chilling message to other religious players: Step out of line and your career might be in jeopardy. Express your beliefs, refuse to follow the crowd, and we might just find you too abhorrent to tolerate.
These incidents have continued, each one marked by acrimony and conflict. That is what led Commissioner Bettman to declare that Pride Nights have become a distraction that the league would have to reevaluate. That decision was, of course, itself denounced.
Some in the press, rather bizarrely, attempted to link the situation to anti-gay laws recently passed in Russia and Uganda. Comparing such laws to the players’ respectful dissent is simply another attempt at demonizing and stigmatizing the religious players. Uganda’s law criminalizes homosexuality with punishments that include lifetime imprisonment. How does that vicious law relate to players’ stating that they support LGBTQ inclusion in hockey but politely decline to wear Pride uniforms? We cannot even begin to guess, and the failure to distinguish between two positions with nothing in common bespeaks a lack of good faith among LGBTQ advocates. But the media were apparently willing to say anything in order to avoid recognizing that their own abusive backlash against respectful religious protest might be the cause of the distraction.
This phenomenon has not been limited to the NHL. A women’s soccer player was benched for refusing to wear a Pride uniform. When five players on MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays declined to wear Pride uniforms, the New York Times condemned them for undercutting the message of inclusion and suggested that they should have been benched as a punishment.
Some critics might respond that while athletes have a “right” to object to wearing Pride uniforms, commentators have a right to condemn them, and their teams have the right to punish them. This response dodges the point and hides behind a dismissive legalism. Of course the law gives Americans wide latitude to be nasty, unkind, and intolerant of one another. But that doesn’t mean we should strive to live in an uncivil and fragmented society. It certainly doesn’t mean that the NHL must continue hosting events that breed animosity and intolerance, the opposite of what they claim to aim for.
To carry the critics’ clichéd response one step further, the players are free to object, other people are free to criticize them, and the league is free to cancel Pride Nights. It may do whatever it wants within the confines of the law; it should do what is best for its business, its players, and the culture in which it exists. That would quite clearly be to return to its core competence, of providing fans with the opportunity to enjoy the great game of hockey played at the highest level, and to put aside promotional efforts that turn its fans into inquisitors and zealots.
As their advocates repeatedly remind us, Pride Nights’ purpose is to create a welcoming and tolerant atmosphere. If such nights are going to be used as mini-inquisitions to root out and punish dissenters for their religious views, they are at the very least counterproductive. If one is seeking true tolerance, the path forward is clear. Let those who desire to publicly endorse the message of LGBTQ Pride do so. Let conscientious objectors refrain from endorsing that message. We do not need to agree on everything—or much of anything—to live together. And the alternative is a fate too grave to bear.