Vulgar Opinions: Fandom In Jeopardy?
Writer’s Note: This article relates to my personal thoughts and feelings. It is not a ‘how to think,’ for anyone.
“Why should the fans continue to care?” It’s a bastardization of something Corey Griswold asked at one of the blogger summits (whose link I was unable to find). I’ve been pondering it a lot lately in relation to myself. Why should I continue to care? What do the Sabres do for me, what connection do I have, and together are those things enough to justify coming back?
I was born in Buffalo in 1986, but I haven’t lived there since 1989 meaning that roughly 92% of my short life has been spent living elsewhere (albeit still in New York, and closer to Buffalo than any other NHL city). Despite the 8 years I spent in Rochester, the 11 I spent in Syracuse, and the 4 I spent split between Syracuse and Potsdam (Clarkson University), Buffalo is the one city that has always felt like home. That is what has pushed me to root for the Sabres over better and more interesting teams. I wanted that connection, that ‘reason,’ to root for my team instead of just hopping on the most convenient bandwagon.
Now I’m moving. To a state that is better for me than New York, and a city (Seattle) that is probably better than any I’ve lived in to this point. How far do birth and familiarity get a sports team? Where do you draw the line in saying ‘this organization hasn’t done much for me,’ and then make the leap to say ‘this other organization has made some pretty compelling cases for my loyalty.’ Again, how far do birth and familiarity go? And how important is convenience?
There has been a particular feeling that has been growing in me that seems to carry over to the Sabres. Stuck. Part of my openness to moving across the country is that I have felt stuck in New York. Similarly, the Sabres feel stuck. Stuck in the Mom and Pop hockey, small town mindset that has plagued most of its existence. Sure, Pop won the lottery, but the feeling pervades. The store got so old, all the big moves that feel like jumping ahead, are actually just catching up to all the other stores. Name one thing that the Sabres have done in any aspect that hasn’t been done by another team. Name one thing that is truly unique in the way that hockey in Buffalo is unique. Painted walls, new locker room, beefed up scouting, updated concessions… Hell, we went ape-shit over the elimination of a logo that was on its way out anyway. Hooray, we caught up to the present! Kind of.
It seemed the new ownership recognized that Buffalo is special when it comes to hockey. That hockey in Buffalo should be special. That the arena should be something unique, and that the fan experience should be something unique. I got the impression that the new ownership wanted other teams to look at Buffalo and say ‘wow, that’s how hockey should be done.’ Don’t get me wrong, many of the upgrades have been neither simple, nor cheap…but has that happened? I can count three things that made the Honda Center better than the First Niagara Center off the top of my head (great food options, a separate video board devoted to real-time in game stats, and ice girls, those bastions of immorality in an arena rife with alcohol, cursing, and violence).
Moreover I can look at various aspects of several other organizations and say ‘wow, that’s how hockey should be done,’ whether it’s in the management of on-ice talent (Boston, Detroit, San Jose, Pittsburgh), the style of play (Washington, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Boston), or in fan relations (Toronto, San Jose, Vancouver).
Ah yes, that last one…that’s where I begin to go astray. You see, I am a certain type of fan, a unique type of fan, one that has often found it difficult to fit in amongst the machismo of sports, and the condemnation of anything but. I am gay (and to be clear, I am using gay as an umbrella term to cover anything that is ‘not straight’ for the sake of ease and using a term that is widely identifiable). My partner is transgendered, and our first date was a Sabres game.
Over a year ago, it might have even been close to two years ago, long before You Can Play became a thing and as the It Gets Better Project was catching fire among professional sports teams, I approached the Sabres. I pointed out that no NHL team had done an It Gets Better video at that point, and that in doing so, the Sabres would be blazing a trail for other NHL teams to follow, something I thought the new regime would be interested in. I continued that I understood that there was some fear in making a “controversial” step, but that any outrage from conservative fans would be far outstripped by the advent of good relations with a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered community that had been largely ignored (and sometimes demonized) in sports. An LGBT community that has a sizable presence in Buffalo. My fear was that not only would the NHL be last to the party in embracing LGBT athletes (much like it was in embracing black athletes), but that Buffalo would lose out on a chance to bring acceptance to the table. Brendan Burke and the You Can Play Project managed to ensure the first fear would remain unrealized.
The second…well, let’s see.:
Sabres captain Jason Pominville, though not among the first, was one of the earlier NHLers to produce a short video for You Can Play with Nathan Gerbe (as per tweets by Burke, and I believe Gerbe himself) said to be joining the project sometime in the future. The Sabres showed their support for Pominville and their pride in a key member of the organization promoting tolerance and acceptance by not airing his spot during games, instead opting for other You Can Play videos. (Note: The Sabres claim that it has been aired at the First Niagara Center while I haven’t been able to find a single person that has seen it. Brittany mentions this here at Sabres in Seven along with many of my other points.) While the organization certainly didn’t have to play any of the spots at all, I found it odd that they wouldn’t be swelling with pride at Pominville’s contribution and airing it everywhere like he said ‘Healthy Changes Everything,’ instead of ‘You Can Play.’
Unbeknownst to a lot of fans, the Sabres were also involved in producing an anti-bullying PSA inspired by the suicide of gay Williamsville teen Jamey Rodemeyer. The spot was supposed to feature Derek Roy (which probably explains why it has yet to be released) and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Again, you’d think this sort of outreach would be widely known and publicized (it wasn’t, most of the attendees of the summit in which it was mentioned had no idea), but again it seems that the Sabres want to hide their support of “controversy.” (If you head to Google, you’ll most likely come across this link, which didn’t seem to want to mention that Jamey was gay or that he had posted his own It Gets Better video shortly before his suicide. Why the Sabres wouldn’t choose to honor him with an It Gets Better contribution of their own is a mystery. I’m actually kind of aghast at this…it seems like such a no-brainer.)
And then there’s the Salvation Army, the wonderful charitable organization that can’t seem to adhere to its official policy of not discriminating against LGBT individuals (which it can legally do in 29 states anyway). When not threatening to close NYC soup kitchens if forced to abide by local non-discrimination ordinances, the Salvation Army is busy firing married mothers with children for their sexual orientation. If you substituted literally any other minority for LGBT, no one would even glance in the Salvation Army’s general direction. Yet the Sabres do, and to be fair to them, every other NHL team probably does as well. I can’t speak for those other NHL teams, but the Sabres, and Ted Black in particular have been made well aware of the Salvation Army’s distinctly Anti-LGBT history. For some reason these allegations, which have been well documented by legitimate news sources online, didn’t seem to trouble the Sabres.
“I, nor anyone else in the organization (that I know of) was aware of any discriminatory acts made by the Salvation Army towards LGBT individuals until you referenced them in your email. If those accusations are true then we will take that into account when considering our support of their organization for next year.”
I find it telling that an anti-LGBT history for an organization isn’t grounds for severing all ties. No, that merely causes the Sabres to consider their support when assessing who they will partner with in future seasons. It didn’t matter anyway as the extent of the Sabres inquiry was talking with the local Salvation Army Majors:
“I am writing to inform you that we have met with Major Donald Hostetler and Major Thomas Applin of the Salvation Army to address your concerns regarding their organization’s alleged discrimination. During our discussion they made it clear that the Salvation Army does not discriminate against any class of individuals and they comply with all laws regarding the provision of benefits to Salvation Army employees.”
I don’t know about you, but I would imagine that if you ask anyone if they discriminate, with negative consequences riding on an affirmative answer, they’re going to deny, deny, deny. The Sabres seem to want to straddle both sides of the fence, doing the bare minimum to show that they don’t condemn LGBT individuals, while distancing themselves as much as possible from that minimum and avoiding any evidence of supporting LGBT individuals to ensure that they don’t alienate any conservative fans. They show You Can Play spots, but try to avoid mentioning that their player has taken part. (Because we need to see more recycling commercials so we know that blue and gold make green.) Produce an anti-bullying video, but try and downplay the LGBT aspect. Pretend to exercise due diligence in deciding who will be affiliated with the team, but make it plainly obvious that you don’t really care and never had any intention of doing anything about it. Ignore concerns of LGBT safety in your building.
Partway through last season, I sent another set of questions to the Buffalo Sabres. As some of you are aware, my partner is transgendered and in the process of transitioning. New York currently has little in the way of protection for transgendered individuals and a litany of problems crop up as a result, mainly having a name, gender appearance, or gender identification that doesn’t match an ID, and being unsure of which gender bathroom is appropriate to use. The First Niagara Center does have unisex bathrooms, but they are small in number, inconveniently located, and according to my partner, never empty.
I asked about how First Niagara Staff were trained to deal with unruly and violent fans, and what sort of things they were trained to look out for. I was looking for any difference in how racism would be treated versus homophobia, but was mainly genuinely curious. I also connected the thoughts of transgendered fans with the small number of unisex bathrooms, more or less asking if there was any way in which the situation could be improved. I lumped a lot of other things into the e-mail for the sake of not sending multiples, which may have drawn away from some of the more important points, but they weren’t exactly difficult questions to answer. I would think that when someone raises questions about safety in your building, you say ‘yes, it’s safe,’ even if that’s all you say. The Sabres couldn’t even do that.
So what’s the big deal about all this? At its base, there isn’t one. It is perfectly okay to merely be nonchalantly acceptable when it comes to your relationship with LGBT fans. Most of us just want to watch some god damned hockey in peace. But I get the feeling that ‘acceptable,’ and ‘adequate,’ and the dreaded m-word, ‘mediocrity,’ aren’t words that the new ownership wants associated with any part of the organization. As a fan who takes pride in his interests, I certainly want my team to be better than that, whether the issue pertains to me specifically, or not.
And this all brings me back to my original question, what have the Sabres done to keep me watching, to keep me interested, to keep me being the type of fan that has spent literally thousands of dollars on them over the past few years? What have they done to ensure that, like may ex-pats, that no amount of mileage can shake my loyalty? Not as much as the Sharks, who host an annual Pride Night, (holy shit, the Coyotes and Blue Jackets also host Pride Nights? We’re a worse organization than Phoenix and Columbus!) or the Canucks who became the first organization as a whole to express its support for the You Can Play Project, who saw Manny Malhotra march in the Vancouver Pride Parade. And there is a good chance, the Sabres will have not done much as any future Seattle franchise as the city has seen a member from every one of its professional sports teams support the It Gets Better Project.
Familiarity and Birth vs. ‘We specifically want you and people like you in our seats and supporting our team.’ and convenience.
Which wins? I’m not sure.