Imagine that your father is not only a huge sports fan but, also, an athlete. He played hockey in college and the minor leagues before going to law school, becoming a general manager and working as the Executive Vice-President of the NHL. He has hoisted the Stanley Cup and, now, as a college student, managing your school’s hockey team, you seem poised to follow in his footsteps. But one night, you have something to tell him: you’re gay.
Brendan Burke found himself in this situation in 2007. Tragically, he passed in a car accident three years ago. Following his inspiration, his brother Patrick, along with his father Brian, founded the You Can Play project, which strives to fight homophobia in sports. On Thursday, Patrick Burke moderated a panel of LBGT athletes (Angela Hucles, Wade Davis, and David Farber) at Kimmel to discuss the position of homosexuality in sports.
Brian Burke is not only a hockey guy — he’s a guy’s guy. When running the Toronto Maple Leafs, he famously said, “We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.” His tie is perpetually untied. His face is red. He has been known to call out reporters who write things he does not approve of.
He’s also a man with a strong sense of honor. The NHL collective bargaining agreement allows some players to be ‘restricted free agents (RFA).’ When a team offers a contract to a RFA, the player’s previous team gets a chance to match the offer. Submitting a contract (which is usually above market value) to a RFA is known as an offer sheet and is often done tactically. Even if a team matches the offer to keep their player, they have to pay a higher price than they would like. Burke, however, did not have room for them in his personal system.
When Burke was the GM of the Anaheim Ducks, Kevin Lowe of the Edmonton Oilers submitted an offer sheet for Ducks forward Dustin Penner, knowing that Burke could not match the exorbitant offer. Burke struck back in the media, calling the move “gutless” and “an act of desperation.” He even reportedly attempted to rent a barn to fight Lowe, until NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stepped in.
Imagine coming out to that man.
Well, that is what Brendan Burke did. As chronicled in a masterful piece by ESPN’s John Buccigross, he slowly revealed his sexuality — first to his sister and, later, his brother. One night, the moment finally came. “We still love you. This won’t change a thing,” said Mr. Testosterone and Truculence, Brian Burke.
Underneath tough exterior, though, there is a heart dedicated to community service. He later marched in the Toronto Pride Parade, in honor of Brendan. This big Irish family embraces Brendan. When something happens to one of them, it happens to all of them. That’s how the Burkes are. That’s why they created You Can Play, named after one of Brendan’s comments that you should be welcomed on a team solely if “you can play.”
Jump back to the present, where Patrick is speaking at Kimmel. While showing some typical Burke attitude, trash talking audience members’ favorite sports teams, he posed a series of questions to the panel of athletes for nearly 45 minutes. What was it like growing up? How did it feel to play in the closet? What was it like when you came out?
The underlying theme was that of normalcy: other than being gay, these athletes were like any others. Hucles, a former US Women’s National Soccer Team player, recalled the orange slices she ate playing youth soccer. Farber, who played college hockey, thanked his mom for driving him to games and practices.
Davis, a former NFL player, best summed up the sentiment. He explained that, as a rookie, he was dubbed the team’s ‘funny guy’ for singing She’s My Queen. He didn’t want that to be replaced with something worse. “I was a football player. I didn’t want to be known as a gay person. I wanted to be known as a baller,” he said.
The panel also discussed the main thing You Can Play strives to change — the culture of inadvertent homophobia — which is found everywhere but especially in sports locker rooms. “ I built up a feeling inside that said everyone hates gays and fags so much that they just throw that word around to make fun of each other and I’m gay,” Farber said. “People really hate people that much and they’ll really hate me if they knew what I really was.”
“We refer to that as casual homophobia,” Burke said. “It’s when you say ‘don’t be gay’ when you mean ‘don’t be stupid.“ It was the reason his brother quit hockey in his senior year of high school. Most of us have probably said something like that before; You Can Play wants us to remember ‘these words have a real affect.”
The group also fielded questions from the audience, many of which addressed common misconceptions about homosexuality. Davis explained that despite what others may think, there is no reason for a gay athlete to be ‘excited’ about showering with teammates. “A straight guy will say ‘Well, if I was in a girl’s locker room, I’d look at her’ and I’ll go ‘Not if that’s your sister. A football locker room is a family. The last thing that I ever thought about was sexualizing one of my teammates, who are also my brothers,” he said. “You’re also afraid as shit. You’re afraid to actually think about getting aroused.”
The topic of reconciling religion and homosexuality was also addressed. Burke, who grew up Catholic and attended Catholic school for 18 years, made reference to a piece he wrote for Deadspin.com, responding to Anaheim Angels outfielder Tori Hunter saying that homosexuality was wrong. “If you’re someone who’s using the Bible to discriminate against someone, to preach hate against someone, to put someone else down, you missed the point of the book and should read it again,” he said. “In simplest terms, he somewhat crudely summed up the appropriate course of action: “love the sinner, hate the sin.”
Despite these lessons, Burke is clear that You Can Play won’t ‘soften’ sports. “One of the fears that athletes have when we do talks like this is that they think we’re going to change their locker room and we want you all to sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya,” he continued. “I promise you I have zero fucking interest in doing that.”
What is the goal of this project then? How should we act, whether we are athletes or not? It is simpler than you would think. “If you get rid of five or ten words from your vocabulary, we’re 90% of the way there,” Burke said. “Only five or ten words. It’s not hard.”
To eliminate those words, You Can Play works from both the top down and the bottom up. They have the support of many current NHL and AHL players and a growing number of NCAA teams, all of whom have made videos supporting the project. The hope is that once the players change their language, fans will follow.
There is also a more grassroots side of the project, which takes the form of presentations at schools. These aim to demonstrate, from an early age, how harmful homophobic language can be. By the time the audience members are adults, they will be properly educated to avoid promulgating the problem. Another key step in the process will be the emersion of openly gay athletes. That, however, is likely not as far away as you would think.
“I think sports is right on the tipping point,” Burke said. “The pro sports are playing a little bit of catch up, but I genuinely believe we’re going to have an openly gay NHLer, within maybe not in the next 12 months, but within the next 18 months. I think the other sports will follow and it quickly will become a non-issue.”
When You Can Play was founded nearly a year ago, the project was set to last for eight years. At that point, they would reevaluate the situation and determine how to proceed. Given the current rate of progress, Burke is optimistic about the project’s goals being accomplished in the future. “I genuinely believe that seven years from now, we’re going to be able to shut it down.”
As Burke said, You Can Play isn’t asking for you to make huge changes to your life. Be more aware of what you say and eliminate roughly five words from your vocabulary. It won’t make you ‘soft’ or effeminate or any of those clichés. Just look at Brian Burke; you wouldn’t think to call him anything like that.
And if you’d think that eliminating those words will be too tough, don’t worry. As Patrick Burke said, “you can still call somebody an asshole, you can still make fun of them. We’re just asking for those words.”