Bill Haslam's looming ownership of Predators damages NHL's diversity efforts

Bill Haslam will soon be the owner of the Nashville Predators as the former governor of Tennessee is set to purchase a controlling stake in the NHL franchise. It was an announcement that came in June, recognized as Pride Month across North America.

The significance of this timing comes from Haslam’s political history in opposing and removing LGBTQ+ rights as Governor of Tennessee. As recently as 2021, Haslam fought against marriage rights for same-sex couples.

This opposition, however, was not a singular event. In 2011, Haslam signed a bill that forbade local governments from extending anti-discrimination laws to workers based on sexual orientation. In 2016, Haslam also supported a “Religious Objections” bill, which made it more difficult for LGBTQ+ individuals to seek counseling by allowing counsellors to legally refuse service to members of the community on “religious” grounds.

After same-sex marriage was legalized nationally by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2015, Haslam and Tennessee refused to legalize it at the state level, or recognize out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples. In 2017, Haslam signed yet another bill, this one requiring words be interpreted using their “natural and ordinary meaning” in Tennessee, a move specifically aimed at terms such as “husband or wife” rather than neutral terminology such as “spouse.”

Former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam is set to take control of the Nashville Predators. (REUTERS/Mike Theiler)
Former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam is set to take control of the Nashville Predators. (REUTERS/Mike Theiler)

According to GLAAD Chief Programs Officer Zeke Stokes, Haslam’s decisions placed “the well-being of the LGBTQ community in jeopardy." As Stokes stated, Haslam’s legislation had “the potential to undermine marriages between LGBTQ couples, nullify a transgender person's true identity under law, and put LGBTQ families at risk." The law also created issues for LGBTQ+ couples looking to adopt children.

Haslam maintained his active opposition to same-sex marriage rights throughout his eight-year term as governor. While the NHL often avoids public political statements, as Aidan Cleary, co-founder of Team Trans Ice Hockey, an organization for transgender hockey players says, the league’s imminent acceptance of Haslam as an owner demonstrates “an undeniable affirmation from the NHL that hockey is political.”

As Cleary states, Haslam’s “...legacy remains his devotion to the kind of anti-LGBTQ+...bills that fuel the spread of autocratic culture. I am concerned with the NHL's decision to align itself with Mr. Haslam. Does the NHL truly want the face of its politics to be a man who has never been a guardian for his most vulnerable constituents?”

Dr. Kristopher Wells, Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at MacEwan University, believes Haslam should not be allowed the privilege of NHL ownership at all.

“The league and owners should most definitely prevent the sale to someone who does not share the league’s values,” said Wells, who is also the co-founder of Pride Tape. “It’s hard to proclaim 'hockey is for everyone' when a potential owner has actively worked against the LGBTQ+ community.”

Haslam’s purchase, as announced by the Predators, is still pending “the execution of definitive documents, the completion of a due diligence process, and securing all necessary approvals within the organization and the National Hockey League” before he becomes a minority and then the majority owner of the team in the coming years.

Haslam’s history of supporting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is well documented. According to Cleary, his entrance to the NHL will undoubtedly ostracize LGBTQ+ fans.

“[H]ow can the NHL reconcile its published positions supporting the rights of LGBTQ+ fans and employees with Mr. Haslam's politics?” Cleary questioned. “The NHL probably won't; efforts will likely be made to sweep controversy under the rug, or very legitimate conversations will be stamped out by a one-off diversity session.”

When asked about Haslam's purchase of the organization, his anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs, and how the Predators will ensure inclusion and safety for LGBTQ+ fans, staff, and players, the team avoided the issue. President and CEO Sean Henry replied by pointing to diversity campaigns established in the pre-Haslam era.

“We are very proud of how we approach making our game more welcoming and inclusive to all in Smashville,” Henry wrote in a statement to Yahoo Sports. “Our self-established GUIDER (Growth Understanding Inclusion Diversity Equality and Representation) initiative has already made great progress through several programs. These programs have received nice recognition, garnering tremendous support and partnership, allowing us to move initiatives forward at a faster pace than we ever thought imaginable.”

Henry pointed to the Predators’ recognition as Partner of the Year from the Nashville LGBT Chamber, and the organization’s plans to participate in Nashville’s Pride celebrations in June.

It will be months, however, until Haslam takes minority ownership, and a multi-year process to see him take over complete control of the organization. The impact on equity and inclusion within Nashville’s organization and the community under Haslam’s leadership and his defined ideology is yet to be seen. Nashville is also home to the NHL’s only openly gay prospect, Luke Prokop, who was selected in the third round of the 2020 draft.

When asked how the Predators would welcome Prokop following his selection, captain Roman Josi stated, "Like we've always said, hockey is for everyone, and I think the organization with the Predators really lives that. The organization, the team, everyone in the front office is going to be fully behind.”

Since the announcement of Haslam’s forthcoming purchase, however, Predators players and staff have remained silent about his anti-LGBTQ+ stance, and how it impacts the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” marketing campaign. When Haslam's approval as an NHL owner comes, as Cleary states, the message from the NHL will be clear, whether players and staff speak or not.

“[T]he folks leading the league believe that their alignment with Mr. Haslam will have no genuine consequences for people in Nashville or the greater hockey community. Or, they understand the risks and don't care. I am unsure which is worse,” he said.

For Cleary, who plays and coaches hockey himself, it’s personal. He believes the political stance and allegiances the NHL are choosing are a threat to the well-being of LGBTQ+ fans, staff, and players.

“I just wish the NHL wasn’t embracing the kind of politics that will eventually lead to my community’s eradication.”

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