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Corporate Rainbow Marketing: Too Much of a Good Thing

A recent dust-up involving NHL goalie James Reimer demonstrates the folly of pitting Pride PR against the conscience of individual actors.

· 6 min read
Corporate Rainbow Marketing: Too Much of a Good Thing
Promotional NHL photo used on the league’s Pride Merchandise web page. 

The West is awash in corporate rainbows. Since the LGB and T communities became politically respectable some years back, big businesses have made sure to participate in Pride parades, both as a form of public-relations outreach to we alphabeters in particular, and to social progressives in general. While some radicals claim that Pride has sold its soul, others counter that this pandering for profit by commercial elites only serves to confirm our status as equal members of once bigoted societies.

Recently, however, many organizations have gone beyond the usual rainbow ads, signage, flyers, sponsorships, and parade floats. They are now enlisting their employees and affiliates in public demonstrations of “allyship.” In the view of this gay progressive author, such moves are implicitly coercive and counterproductive. In some cases, they even run afoul of the core principles that animate liberal democracies, such as freedom of conscience.

A current flareup involves the NHL. (That’s the National Hockey League for those Quillette readers who live outside North America.) As part of its “Pride Nights,” players are asked to show up for pre-game warmups wearing Pride-themed jerseys. The culture of professional hockey, as with many other sports, is markedly homophobic, as evidenced by the inability of professional hockey players to feel comfortable publicly identifying as gay. (To date, there has only been one, and this on a farm team.) So, it’s understandable that the NHL might want to pinkwash its sport’s reputation, not to mention tap into young, progressive urban markets. And who knows? Maybe an NHL player who dons a Pride jersey might one day be emboldened to come out publicly.

But here’s the thing: the NHL already had been performing various forms of “allyship” for years, and in ways that were wholly unobjectionable. You Can Play, founded in memory of Brendan Burke, son of former Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke, has initiated a variety of programs aimed at eliminating homophobia in hockey, and sports culture more generally. These include creating volunteer player ambassadors from every team, and the sale of rainbow Pride tape to benefit charities devoted to LGB and T inclusion. Who can argue against that?

One important aspect of these earlier programs: players opt into them of their own free will. The element of choice and personal conviction adds a moral force to their efforts that is absent when the onus is reversed—i.e., when they are pressured to signal their support for the rainbow world on pain of public humiliation and the possible loss of sponsorships if they fail to show up.

Which brings us to San Jose Sharks goaltender James Reimer, who decided to sit out the Pride Night warmup before his team’s March 19th home game against the New York Islanders. Reimer wasn’t the first conscientious objector in this regard. That distinction belongs to Ivan Provorov of the Philadelphia Flyers, who sat out a Pride skate in January, citing his Russian Orthodox religious beliefs. Later that month, the New York Rangers cancelled the team’s Pride skate due to (unspecified) diverse views within the team’s locker room; and, instead, illuminated Madison Square Garden in rainbow lights, handed out rainbow fanny packs, and made a charitable donation to help homeless LGB and T youth—all positive and unexceptional PR moves.

Reimer’s decision got more attention, perhaps because he explicitly cited his Christian faith. (Provorov did, too, of course. But his status as a Russian-born member of Christianity’s Orthodox branch somewhat muddied the waters. Reimer, a Manitoba-born Mennonite, supplied a less ambiguous target.)

Reimer told the press that he “has love in [his] heart” for everyone; has always tried “to treat everyone with respect and kindness”; strongly believes that “every person has value and worth”; and that “the LGBTQIA+ community, like all others, should be welcome in all aspects of the game of hockey.” At the same time, he said that as a committed Christian who follows the Bible, he can’t endorse sexualities and lifestyles that go against his beliefs.

Reimer has always been known as one of the sport’s good guys. And even in this episode, his underlying decency and sincerity are apparent. Certainly, none of his remarks can be construed as hateful. Yet that didn’t pre-empt public condemnation. A Toronto Star sports reporter noted Reimer’s long history of exemplary conduct, but then called him a bigot, and said his faith was “a skirt for bigotry.” On social media, a progressive broadcaster, once famed for his sports journalism, suggested he should be fired.

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