Since his younger brother Brendan became one of the most prominent gay figures in North American sports, Patrick Burke has made frequent outreach efforts to athletic teams and organizations about ending homophobia in sports. After he and his family members — including father Brian Burke, the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs — were done speaking, they would invariably be asked the same question by coaches and players: What do we do next?
“And we just got tired of not having an exact answer for that question,” Patrick told me last week. “We wanted to formalize it, to say to players and coaches and administrators: Here is what you do to make sure your locker room’s safe, and your teammates feel welcome.”
Those efforts will culminate with Sunday’s announcement of the “You Can Play” movement, an effort backed by several NHL A-listers and dedicated to purging sports locker rooms of homophobia and discrimination.
The group’s advisory board includes 2011 college hockey player of the year Andy Miele, San Jose Sharks forward Tommy Wingels, Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts, two-time U.S. women’s soccer Olympic gold medal winner Angela Hucles and the elder Burke. Perhaps more importantly, about three dozen prominent hockey players have signed on, a group Patrick Burke says would form “an easy Stanley Cup winner.”
The players’ public support will begin with a PSA airing during the first intermission of Sunday’s Bruins-Rangers broadcast on NBC, featuring eight NHL stars, including New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist. That video and others will be posted at YouCanPlayProject.org, which will also include resources for straight and gay players, coaches and fans.
The project’s three founders have told participating athletes that they aren’t asking for partisan arguments or political stands; for example, the group does not have a formal position on gay marriage or any other non-athletic issue.
“We’ve asked them to say they would support an openly gay teammate,” Patrick Burke said. “That’s all we’ve asked them to say, and that’s all we’ll ever ask them to say. All that these guys care about is winning. They want the best athletes to help them win a Stanley Cup. And that’s all we’ve asked them to say.”
Since Brendan Burke’s death in a car accident in 2010, Patrick – a 28-year old law student and Philadelphia Flyers scout — and his father have become prominent straight advocates of such efforts. The Burkes will also appear in one of the PSAs, and Patrick said he believes the NHL is already “the most accepting of the major men’s sports leagues.”
“But the fact is, we’ve never had an openly gay active male player in any of the four big professional leagues,” Burke said. “As accepting as our [NHL] players are and our management is, we need the gay athletes who are currently in the NHL — because I believe there are some – to know just how accepting our league is. It’s scary when you think you’re alone, when you think you’re the only one. Everyone thinks about the worst-case scenario: I’m gonna come out, and my teammates are gonna turn on me, and I’ll get cut. We need to show them that that’s not the case.”
The founders have reached out to major and minor leagues in other sports, and will continue to do so while soliciting user-generated videos from college and amateur teams. By the fall, they’re aiming to release educational materials that will facilitate discussions about sexual orientation among coaches and players. And Patrick Burke is not imagining decades of gradual progress.
“I do not intend to be doing this for the rest of my life; we want to rectify this as soon as possible,” he said. “The end goal of our project is that we’re completely useless. We want the day to come when it’s not a story when an athlete comes out, when athletes are only judged by how they can help their teams win.”