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When former New York Islanders GM and Boston Bruins pugilist Mike Milbury starts foaming during a fighting debate and tosses out a phrase like "pansification," do you think he's picturing someone like Nathan Lane in "The Birdcage" or that giant musical number-turned-brawl at the end of "Blazing Saddles"?

That seems to be the question one gay rights group in Canada is asking, targeting Don Cherry and Mike Milbury of CBC Sports for using a derivative of "pansy" to insult anti-fighting advocates.

Surprisingly, CBC Sports is standing behind its star commentators in the face of protest. And for a fairly justifiable reason.

Since the death of Don Sanderson ratcheted up the dispute over fighting's place in the game, Milbury has been on the frontlines of defending it in the media on CBC Sports and NBC -- including a recent argument with Pierre McGuire in which he said his NBC sparring partner was "just another guy who wants to pansify the sport."

NBC followed Milbury's crack that McGuire was a "Flower Child" by playing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," which could have altered the meaning of "pansy" for some viewers. For a gay rights group in Canada, the meaning of "pansy" when used by Mike Milbury or Don Cherry is quite clear and it's not happy about it.

The Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere group, or EGALE based in Ottawa, filed a complaint with the ombudsman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. over the use of "pansification" in the hockey broadcasts. William Houston of the Globe & Mail wrote about the protest in today's edition:

Scott Moore, the head of CBC Sports, said through a network spokesman yesterday that commentators are free to make their own decisions whether to use the expression. "That's ridiculous," said Helen Kennedy, the executive director of Egale Canada. "So it's okay for people to go around using these slurs - derogatory, stereotypical terms against a group in society? That's outrageous."

Network spokesman Jeff Keay said neither Milbury nor Cherry intended to offend homosexuals by using "pansification," a derivative of the word pansy.

"The point is, it was no way intended to be a reflection on or offensive to gay people," Keay said. "I think the colloquial use of the term was something they didn't associate with gay people. The way the language evolves over time, 20 or 30 years ago it would have been seen, reasonably enough, as a direct slur against gay people.

"But I think with usage now, I'm not sure the association is so immediate."

Of course, it's not like the Governor of North Carolina just had to apologize for using it in a joke last year or anything, right?

Outsports, a leading voice for gay sports fans and athletes in the U.S., addressed the CBC's stance on its blog today:

The network's defense of the term seems a bit odd to me. Canada is supposed to be a place where you don't have to hear stuff like this. And surely there are a dozen other terms they could come up with to describe the sentiment without using a derogatory term. My guess is they'll cave at some point; It just seems like a no-win fight for them.

Let's get this out of the way: there is rampant homophobia in hockey, just like there is in any other violent professional sport. "Pansification" is the most benign thing you'd hear in a hockey locker room or on the ice; but beyond cultural insensitivity in language, it's not like hockey is any exception when it comes to the professional sports closet.

That said, here's the heart of the matter: Is "pansy" a homophobic slur?

This might not be something for a straight, married male to decide, but as a writer I wouldn't automatically consider it as such. It's a label that indicates lack of masculinity, which could be an indication of femininity as much as one of homosexuality.

That's why this post on the HF Boards really nails what it is Milbury and Cherry are getting at, and it's not gay-bashing: it's sexism.

So, in an odd way, it's professional broadcasting standards and practices that have steered two of hockey's most caustic critics into alleged homophobia.

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