Andrew Shaw’s slur sheds light on homophobia in sports – Chicago Tribune
Almost every sportswriter I know loves to romanticize about the old days — when being a beat writer allowed you to get to know the people you covered on a meaningful level. You developed a good working relationship, a give and take. Maybe the player would get angry with you for something you wrote, but you would talk it out and move on.
I’m 29 and I have no idea what that era of sportswriting was like. The access we have to athletes is limited.
Teams control everything. They shut down interviews that go long, micromanage the image of their franchise and coach players on what to say.
Rarely do you get to have a real conversation. Andrew Shaw and I had one Wednesday.
It came after Shaw, visibly shaken, apologized for using a homophobic slur in the penalty box late in the Hawks’ 4-3 loss to the Blues in Game 4 of their playoff series Thursday.
“I’m not that kind of guy,” Shaw said in a broken voice.
It was raw and heartfelt.
Even with all the restrictions in place in the modern sports media landscape, I have a bead on what kind of guy Shaw is after covering the Hawks for a full season. He doesn’t hide when the media enters the dressing room. He will stick around and talk for a few minutes and seems to enjoy the interaction. A number of times this season, I’ve gone to him just to talk and see how he’s doing. I always look forward to seeing him in the room and chatting.
Certainly, I was disappointed when I saw video surface of Shaw using the slur. He was vilified on social media, but I don’t want to cast stones. He has a reputation around the league for being an irritant on the ice, but I don’t think he’s a bad guy. I also don’t think he hates gay people. I just want to help him understand why what he said packs such a devastating emotional wallop.
Shaw is not the problem. The fact he felt he could use that word like it was another four-letter word — and not remember saying it after the game — is the problem.
Last month, I wrote a column for the Tribune in which I criticized Falcons assistant Marquand Manuel for opening an interview at the NFL scouting combine with prospect Eli Apple by asking Apple: “Do you like men?” I said such words promote an atmosphere of intolerance and homophobia that make it very difficult for a closeted gay athlete to feel like he can come out and thrive in professional sports. In the column, I also informed readers I am gay.
No word causes that feeling in closeted gay men more than what Shaw apparently said Tuesday night. It is the word gay men fear and despise the most. Shaw using it out of anger is no excuse.
I was called that growing up before I even realized I was gay. When you’re closeted and thinking about coming out, you have nightmares about friends or family members using that word and making you feel like an outcast. It hurts when your friends use that word in a teasing manner. It’s a whole different feeling to have people direct that word at you with contempt. I’ve had that feeling.
Now put yourself in the shoes of a closeted gay athlete. You’re in a locker room or on a playing field, and you hear your teammates use that word. You start thinking, “Is this how they really feel about gay people? Is that what they would call me if I came out to them? Would I still be a member of this team? Would my career be over?”
That word is why gay athletes everywhere hide their sexual identity and often live lives of torment. It’s why some contemplate suicide and develop emotional and psychological issues they might never rectify.
That word needs to be eliminated from sports. I’m not naive enough to think it will vanish quickly. Like a lot of athletes, Shaw likely doesn’t realize what he’s saying when he uses it.
He isn’t the first professional athlete to use it, nor will he be the last. Flyers center Wayne Simmonds allegedly used it in 2011. Bulls center Joakim Noah was fined for using that word the same year. So was Kobe Bryant. NFL players reportedly directed it at Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. throughout last season because Beckham likes to dance with male friends in Instagram videos.
The word cuts deeply across all sports. If you’re serious about eliminating it, suspensions are likely to get players’ attention more than fines; the NBA recently suspended Kings guard Rajon Rondo one game for using the slur.
The NHL, which has a good track record working with groups that support gay athletes, did so with Shaw for an elimination playoff game for the Hawks. The punishment was an important step for the league if it is serious about promoting an atmosphere of tolerance for its gay fans and those players who one day may come out of the closet.
I never spoke with Shaw about my NFL column after it ran until Wednesday. Previously, I spoke to only one Hawks player who stopped me at the United Center one day to tell me he had read it and enjoyed it. I spoke to members of the Hawks staff who were nothing but supportive and encouraging. I’ve been able to do my job since I wrote that column the way I did my job before it ran, and that’s what I wanted and would expect in the future.
Shaw and I talked things over after his apology.
He was heartfelt in his pledge to learn from this, to stop using the word no matter how riled up he gets on the ice. I told him I didn’t view him any differently Wednesday than I did Monday. I’m still going to see how he’s doing when he’s in the locker room and still will pester him with hockey questions.
If he ever wants to ask me more about the word and what kind of an effect it has, I’ll be there to answer — after every practice and before and after every game, as long as the Hawks find a way to re-sign him after the season.
I like Andrew Shaw. I like talking to him, and this won’t change that.
I just hope this small part of him does.