The least-talked-about professional sports franchise in Philadelphia is the Flyers. Until recent weeks. The team that can’t make sports headlines ON the ice made the national news OFF the ice. One of its players – Ivan Provorov — refused to participate in PRIDE NIGHT.
As part of its show of support for the LGBTQ community, the Flyers players were requested to wear “Pride Jerseys.” Provorov refused, citing his Russian Orthodox religion as the reason. He also refused to participate in pre-game warm-ups with his teammates. Flyers coach John Tortorella let Provorov play anyway, despite calls for the player’s immediate suspension. Tortorella appeared to treat the incident as a player exercising his personal religious beliefs.
Writing in THE ATHLETIC, a website devoted to issues surrounding sports, Charlie O’Connor accused Provorov of bias and of being a spoil-sport on a night promoting respect for the LGBTQ community. Tortorella is taking heat for not suspending or even kicking Provorov off the team for his actions.
I believe that support for the LGBTQ community is the same as support for all minority communities — communities that are marginalized and bullied on a daily basis. Too often, that support is seen as political. Homosexuality is mistakenly treated as a choice. By now, we should understand the evidence is in. Being gay is NOT a choice. But what complicates the acceptance of homosexuals for some folks is often the religious factor.
We live in a secular world. What I see as old-fashioned bigotry is seen by some others as a defense of their religious values. This impasse is why this issue of prejudice bumps up against freedom of religion so often in courts today.
There is a significant difference between Provorov’s actions and those milestone court cases. In the case where the baker refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, that baker was withholding services available to the general public. That’s the definition of discrimination. Provorov’s actions did not involve withholding services offered to other segments of the public. The hockey player made no prejudicial statements against gays. His actions were significantly different than the baker refusing to make a wedding cake for the gay couple.
Was Provorov using religion as a cover to mask his bias? One way to find out is, I believe, to examine the official position of the (Russian) Orthodox Church on the acceptance of homosexuality. A statement by the Orthodox Church states in part that, “ … No one has the right to do whatever he wishes with his body and still claim recognition and respect on the part of society. The Orthodox Church believes that homosexuality should be treated by society as an immoral and dangerous perversion and by religion as a sinful failure. In both cases correction is called for … .” Reports are that the Orthodox Church has been a key factor in anti-gay laws enacted in Russia.
Note that when Pope Francis decreed last week that homosexuality is not a crime, the act is still considered a sin by the Catholic Church. Therefore, a Catholic member of the Flyers could’ve claimed with some legitimacy that he did not want to support a lifestyle that his religion told him was a sin. Again in doing so, the hockey player was not withholding services. Provorov played in the game that night. Is it difficult to believe that other players on the Flyers may not have been happy about wearing “pride” colors? No. It’s likely those players made the choice not to make waves and get grief for it. Those players made a different choice. But the choice of a player not to participate does not negate the Flyers’ organizational support for the LGBTQ community, and should not be seen as such.
In quoting Provorov’s religious teachings on homosexuality, am I claiming that this makes the actions of the hockey player right? Not in my eyes. But I’m not Provorov. I have a different life experience. Among my many friends, I don’t categorize them into gay and straight. Gay or straight, they’re just my friends, and I count myself lucky to have them. Again, that’s likely not Provorov. The harsh attitude of the Orthodox Church toward homosexuality provides some context for Provorov’s refusal to wear a Pride uniform. It allows for devotion to religion to be considered, but not conclusive, in the debate. It allows that religion is not an issue to be ignored or casually dismissed.
We seem to understand dissent in other forms on other issues. Colin Kaepernick did more than just kneel during the playing of the national anthem, he wore socks that proclaimed all cops are pigs. I found that sentiment bigoted and unacceptable, yet I understood where Kaepernick was coming from considering his life experience.
In Provorov’s case, reports are that he’s not a popular player in the Flyers locker room. His personality also seems to grate on many fans. Some of this probably has to do with Russia’s bombing the hell out of Ukraine. The atrocities inflicted on Ukrainians by Putin haven’t made Russians especially popular right now here in the States. There is a history of animus of Flyers’ fans toward the Russians dating back to the ownership of Ed Snider and the team’s heralded matches against Russia’s hockey teams. So — Provorov is skating on thin ice (pun intended) as a member of the Flyers organization even before the fuss he raised. It wouldn’t be surprising that despite his skill set, Provorov is traded away in the near future. But hockey issues aside, what should Tortorella have done in response to Provorov’s refusal to participate in “Pride Night?”
In fairness to Tortorella, if he had suspended Provorov, he would’ve ruined the good vibes of the night. It would’ve become a bigger incident. Provorov is one of his better players, and the Flyers need all the help they can get on the ice. And I don’t discount that Provorov and other Russian players in the NHL can be concerned about defying Putin’s wishes. Putin has shown the ability to wreak revenge against dissidents outside Russia. Players would have a right to also be concerned about family still living in Russia. Putin’s regime is harshly anti-gay.
It wasn’t so long ago that it would’ve been unthinkable that a professional sports team would set-aside a night to support the LGBTQ community. Let that be the positive message to come out of Flyers Pride Night.