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Leave ideology out of sports

Is a backlash brewing in the NHL against mandatory “pride” signaling?

New York Rangers goaltender Jaroslav Halak makes a save against Vegas Golden Knights right wing Keegan Kolesar on Jan. 27 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Associated Press/Photo by Mary Altaffer

Leave ideology out of sports
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The National Hockey League seems to aim for the cutting edge of the culture war, as controversy over LGBTQ+ inclusion and Pride-themed events continue to surface. First a single player refused to participate in a Pride-focused team warmup. And then an entire team decided to forgo the rainbow tape and Pride Night jerseys.

Interestingly, a funny thing happened on the way to the hockey game on Jan. 17 between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Anaheim Ducks. The Flyers were hosting the game and marked the evening with a “Pride Night celebration.” As part of the festivities intended to “support of the LGBTQ+ community,” Flyers players were to wear “special Pride-themed warmup jerseys and use warm-up sticks wrapped in rainbow Pride tape.”

These days, that’s the way it goes in professional sports. Many teams have Pride-themed events, just one more indication that sports is a business and signaling appropriate cultural virtues is an important element of doing business in America today. And increasingly those corporate virtues are ideologically progressive.

But against such corporate pressure, one player refused to bend the knee to progressive sexual ideology. Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov remained in the locker room during warmups while his teammates took to the ice in the Pride apparel. Provorov later played in the game, a 5-2 victory for the home team over the visitors. Provorov ended up with a +1 rating and a shot on goal in 22:45 of ice time. And most recently, the New York Rangers had a warmup without rainbow-themed gear, despite having previously billed the evening as “Pride Night.”

Provorov’s simple refusal to participate in the pre-game ritual celebration of LGBTQ+ ideology was enough to raise the ire of commentators and pundits, but might also inspire more people to be publicly faithful to their beliefs. Indeed, Provorov’s explanation of his decision was even more infuriating to the elites because he dared to invoke his religious beliefs. Provorov was born in Yaroslavl, Russia, and is a Russian Orthodox Christian. “I respect everybody and I respect everybody’s choices,” said Provorov. “My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion. That’s all I’m going to say.”

The Rangers have not cited religious reasons for the seemingly sudden shift in plans. In a statement, the club said that “we support everyone’s individual right to respectfully express their beliefs.” Perhaps some of the Rangers players were inclined to follow Provorov’s lead and refuse to wear the Pride-themed equipment and rather than single out one or more individuals, the team stuck together in solidarity. And perhaps management wanted to avoid controversy and decided to have the team warm up in their regular jerseys.

There are quickly becoming cultural limits to what an individual can express, and what the consequences for such expressions can be.

Mainstream and social media saw a flurry of backlash against Provorov, but the prevailing narrative seems to have shifted a bit as more reasonable voices conclude that it is entirely justifiable for a person to refuse to be coerced into expressing things he or she doesn’t support. Flyers head coach John Tortorella, no stranger to controversy himself, said that in his view Provorov was “being true to himself and to his religion,” and that it would not be appropriate to bench a player for such authenticity.

Provorov was standing up (or in this case sitting down) for his beliefs. He had to know that there would be significant criticism, and in spite of that reality he was willing to act against the prevailing corporate culture and refuse to participate in something that would violate his religious convictions.

This episode is an illustration of just how little true tolerance there is in our culture today. To respect something or someone now means that we must affirm everything they say or stand for, or agree with everything they claim or desire. To do otherwise is to be a bigot, a homophobe, and the cause of “dignitary harm.” Tolerance becomes a perverted tool for social castigation and punishment. And to refuse to toe the tolerance line becomes an occasion for social programming. Kurt Weaver, the COO of NHL partner organization You Can Play, wants to use this “incident” as an opportunity to educate and reform Provorov, and no doubt the New York Rangers are next.

There’s an old joke about hockey popularized by Rodney Dangerfield: “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” It is a tough sport. In this instance, though, Provorov went to a hockey game and a cultural fight broke out about the place of tolerance and religious convictions.

Carl Trueman has rightly diagnosed our cultural malaise as involving the supremacy of “expressive individualism.” We see that there are quickly becoming cultural limits to what an individual can express, and what the consequences for such expressions can be. Gord Miller thinks that Provorov will be a less attractive candidate for many NHL teams because of his religious convictions. Perhaps that is true. If so, Provorov will literally pay the price for his religious beliefs.

But as so many Christians have known and witnessed throughout the ages, God is able to deliver us from oppressors. “But even if he does not,” as three faithful servants of God once put it to a brazen tyrant, “we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Whether that idol is made of gold or wrapped in rainbow tape, Christians must remain true to their convictions and stand with courage as faithful witnesses in all areas of life—including at the hockey rink.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.

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