Pride games research heartening for ice hockey’s Zach Sullivan after homophobia incident

Zach Sullivan and his Manchester Storm team-mates had just survived a power play when an opposition player skated up and homophobically abused him.

“It was on the penalty kill. The phrase he used was ‘nice hit, f****t’,” says Sullivan. The match was an Elite League encounter in December last year.

With Sullivan outraged but managing to keep his emotions in check, the officials approached. “Fortunately, I knew both of the refs on the game quite well. They came over and asked which player it was, and what he’d said. I told them and added, ‘look, if he says that again, I’m going to go for him’.

“My defence partner was the toughest player in the league, so it wasn’t just a case of me. The game would probably have spiralled out of control very quickly. Both refs said they’d put it in their report.”

The incident occurred midway through last season, which was Sullivan’s first with the Storm and his sixth in the Elite League. At the time, as 2019 was drawing to a close, he had begun to share a truth with close friends and family – that he is bisexual.

“I’d always been able to separate my ‘real life’ from my hockey life,” he explains. “Hockey had always been a release. But I realised around November time that I couldn’t do that any more. My private life was affecting how I was playing.

“I remember texting my best friend and saying, ‘I need to talk to you.’ I ended up telling him over text. It sounds like a cliché but it just felt like a weight had lifted off my shoulders.”

For any sportsman contemplating being more open about his sexuality within a team sport, hearing a slur such as the one directed at Sullivan during a match would understandably bring concerns. Despite that, the Storm defenceman felt the incident was unrepresentative of the sport in the UK; it was the first time he’d been verbally abused in that way while out on the ice in the league.

The player responsible, who was from the US, couldn’t have known that Sullivan was at that time contemplating coming out in ice hockey. “It wasn’t a personal attack but still unacceptable,” he says. He hoped the refs’ reports would lead to action.

A month later, the Elite League held its first-ever Pride Weekend, partnering with You Can Play, a US organisation with origins in hockey that campaigns against homophobia in sports. Individual clubs, including the Storm, had previously staged their own diversity-themed match nights but a league-wide celebration of inclusivity generated wider interest, as hockey players put on a united front against discrimination – as well as putting on special-edition Pride Weekend jerseys.

“We were training on the Friday before the weekend, and two of my team-mates were doing the photoshoot with the Pride shirts,” recalls Sullivan. “I skated over to our kit manager and said, ‘where’s mine? I’m getting in the picture!’ I forced my way in because I knew what I was going to do by that point.”

The next day, post-match, he told his coach and team-mates that he is bi and that he would be sharing the personal news on social media, thus making him one of very few out male players in ice hockey, and in professional men’s team sports worldwide.

When he posted to Twitter and Instagram on the Sunday, the response from all quarters was overwhelmingly supportive – thousands of people congratulated him on social media, and Sullivan was inundated with messages of goodwill, and media requests for interviews.

#PrideWeekend #ICanPlay #YouCanPlay @officialEIHL @Mcr_Storm pic.twitter.com/2FH6AtDZ4f

Seven months on, Sullivan acknowledges how the experience has changed him. He’s more confident, and more comfortable with that part of himself. Talking to the media about being bi still feels “a bit weird”, however. “I’m quite private, but I’m getting better at figuring out what I want to say, and saying it when I want to say it. If I’d just come out and then said nothing afterwards, I think that would have been a little bit irresponsible.”

He feels the hockey community has fully embraced him. “Since I came out, guys I’ve never played with have come up to me and said, ‘really proud of you for what you’ve done’ and things like that. The reactions have only been positive, and it’s really exciting and fun to be part of a bigger message.”

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With the Pride jerseys, they’re trying to send a message out that LGBT+ people are accepted in our sport. I think that every player that I’ve played with is strongly behind that message.

Zach Sullivan, Manchester Storm

Pride games helping, study shows

For Sullivan, the importance of that message is reinforced by both events – the slur incident and the Pride Weekend – and now it’s not just his own anecdotal experience that supports what he says. Last week, the results were released from a pioneering new study carried out in Australian men’s ice hockey that found clear evidence of the influence of pride games on creating a more inclusive sports culture.

The research, undertaken in a two-week timeframe by Monash University, collected data from players on all eight teams in the top-tier Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL), in which just over a quarter of players are from the USA and Canada (the UK’s Elite League has an even higher percentage of players from North America). Within the AIHL teams that had participated in a pride game, 38% of players reported using homophobic language in the period of the study, compared to 61% of players who had not participated in such a game.

In Britain, the learnings taken from the study are particularly useful with the annual activation of Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign approaching in late autumn, when the country’s most popular men’s team sports by spectator numbers – football and rugby union – have regularly supported the initiative in recent seasons. In rugby, Harlequins further amplified the message of LGBT+ inclusion with the sport’s first-ever Pride Game event back in February.

For the Monash University study’s lead author Erik Denison, the results counter an opinion that sports fixtures held with a diversity theme are just for show. “When clubs hold these games, there’s often a fair bit of negativity on social media. We saw this with the Harlequins Pride Game earlier this year, and with the Rainbow Laces rounds held in football. Many of the comments suggest the clubs are ‘virtue signalling’ or ‘being politically correct’. Often there’s commentary in the mainstream press suggesting the clubs are only holding these events to improve their reputation and attract sponsors.

“Until now, there had been no academic research examining whether pride games in sport actually help to drive change to homophobic language, which we know harms LGBT+ people’s mental health and deters gay kids from participating. Sports administrators in the UK and other countries have told me the lack of evidence makes it hard to defend their choice to hold these games.

“We have now completed two studies that found players on teams that hold pride games not only use less homophobic language, but also less sexist language too. Research tells us the language is typically not meant with malice or ill intent, and players often defend it as thoughtless ‘banter’ or ‘sledging’. We know boys pick up this behaviour from others around them at a young age and it becomes habitual.

“More research is now needed to understand exactly how diversity-themed games can drive changes to behaviour. For pride games, our working theory is that communications around the game, getting players to wear a special uniform, putting rainbows up in a stadium, making announcements, and meeting LGBT+ athletes creates a window of opportunity to short-circuit normally thoughtless language.”

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In Sullivan’s experience, pride games are well received by his fellow hockey players – and that was clear from a time before he ever told anyone about why they might mean a lot to him personally. To entice fans into arenas, enterprising Elite League clubs often look to spice up the matchday atmosphere and hooking onto a special occasion in the calendar is one way to do that. But at the Storm, it’s understood that rainbow flags have real impact.

“We’ve played in a few pride games now. It’s very strange because we do a lot of one-off nights – Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s, all that – and those shirts often get ridiculed because there’s always something cliched, or weird about them.

“But whenever I’ve played in a pride game, it’s always been really positive reactions – ‘these shirts are awesome’, or ‘this is going to be fun to play in’. The majority if not all of the players playing in these games understand what it’s really for. With the Pride jerseys, they’re trying to send a message out that LGBT+ people are accepted in our sport. I think that every player that I’ve played with is strongly behind that message and they’re excited to be a part of it as well.”

The Monash University research was supported by the Australian government, Amnesty International, Salesforce, and You Can Play, who first partnered with a hockey team on a diversity-themed match when the NHL’s Florida Panthers hosted an ‘Equality Night’ back in 2013. Denison stresses that above all else, a statement on what constitutes discriminatory language needs to be part of the activation if pride games are to really achieve tangible results.

“Athletes often believe they are being inclusive when in fact they are using homophobic slurs regularly,” he explains. “They don’t understand why this language would make an LGBT+ person feel unwelcome and unsafe.

“That’s why we need clear and direct education around what homophobic language is, and why words like ‘f****t’, ‘c***sucker’ and ‘poof’ are harmful. It’s this kind of education that will likely improve the effect of pride games.”

‘Education and action essential’

For several years, through its Rainbow Laces toolkit, Stonewall has highlighted words that are likely to make lesbian, gay, bi and trans people turn away from sport. The equality charity’s head of communications and campaigns, Robbie de Santos, agrees with Denison that the vocabulary exercise is crucial. “It’s really great to see research showing that participating in LGBT sports campaigns leads to real behaviour change and seriously reduces the use of anti-LGBT slurs.

“These are the kinds of comments that can put LGBT people off playing sport entirely. So tackling offensive language is a crucial part of helping LGBT people feel welcome in sport. We hope more governing bodies and sport teams see this research and want to get involved in diversity and inclusion events, like Rainbow Laces.”

What happens when such comments are reported? After the homophobic slur was directed at him, Sullivan waited for news of possible disciplinary action against the player – but none came. “Unfortunately, nothing happened to him. I don’t know if the Elite League bothered to talk to him about it.

“I understand the problem – it was my word against his – but as far as I’m aware, he wasn’t even asked. He might have said it in the spur of the moment and not meant it. He might have turned around and said, ‘yeah, actually I did say that’.

“I think it was an opportunity for them to make an example and say this kind of language is not acceptable in our league. I don’t know the reasons but it was disheartening and frustrating to see.”

It was after he had told his Storm team-mates that he is bisexual that he mentioned the incident. They shared his anger and frustration. “To see someone going against what we believe in, that really annoyed quite a lot of us. I don’t think the majority of players on his team would have been particularly happy he’d said that either.

“When players and fans are discriminated against, there should be harsh action – the same way that if a player of colour was discriminated against with racial slurs. You would face a ban or a fine and I don’t understand why it was any different for that particular player.”

In Sullivan’s view, pride games are worthwhile when a two-pronged approach is taken – define the discriminatory language, and discourage its use with a commitment to take action. With that in place, the other benefits soon become clear. “Manchester Storm had 200 or 300 more fans that were LGBT+ on Pride Weekend because it was the club that made the biggest statement of saying ‘we are inclusive’.

“I think a pride game would be a benefit for every club. The LGBT+ community has a sense of togetherness – I’ve learned this over the last few months – and it’s a community that just gets on with it. Also, they love to be involved in things, and if they’re given that olive branch, they will take it with both hands and go ‘yeah, this is awesome’.

“Plan for it, because it can’t be just a spur-of-the-moment thing, and then enjoy what it brings.”

Denison admits to having been somewhat sceptical about the merits of pride games in the past, but the results of the new Monash study have encouraged him too. He and his colleagues are now supporting researchers in the UK, USA and Canada to conduct further investigations into diversity-themed games.

The data demonstrates progress but the anecdotal evidence speaks volumes too, and it’s not just LGBT+ athletes who are sharing stories of impact. Denison provides another example. “One of our study participants described how he used a homophobic slur during a Pride Game and said it was like swearing in front of his grandmother.

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