Don’t get me wrong: I’m thrilled for Collins. As a straight guy, I can’t imagine how free he must feel to start living on his own terms. I also have huge admiration for what he is doing. He’s both a role model and a reference point for understanding what it can mean to be gay.
What Collins is not, unfortunately, is a sign that professional sports have gotten over their confusion and concern about gay athletes.
People talk a lot about the testosterone-fueled culture of sports, but I think this problem has more to do with insularity. Athletes tend to hang out with other athletes starting at a very young age. In the boys’ locker room, the topic of sexuality doesn’t often come up in a serious way: Young guys are uncomfortable discussing it, and coaches have rarely felt the need to educate their players about it. So male athletes end up being behind in their sexuality education.
I was no exception. In my early 20s, I could tell you the full roster for every NHL team, but I didn’t know what LGBT stood for.
I grew up in the sports world, and I’ve always been pretty comfortable there. My dad, Brian Burke, was an NHL general manager, so as a kid I had free rein in the locker room. Players didn’t want me there? Tough. Tell it to your boss. Through high school, I was a mediocre (at best) athlete, but I worked hard and could tell a joke, so everyone was happy to have me sit there and keep the locker room loose. After college I started scouting for the Philadelphia Flyers, and there isn’t a college, high school or junior hockey coach in the country who would boot an NHL scout from the room. I feel more than safe in locker rooms. I feel at home.
My younger brother, Brendan, didn’t always feel that way. He turned down a spot on his high school’s varsity hockey team in part due to the atmosphere. And it wasn’t until he came out, at age 19 in 2007, that I began to understand why. Brendan was patient with me, answered my stupid questions and got me to see the locker room through his eyes. He helped me realize what anti-gay slurs, tossed around casually, sound like to a closeted athlete. He helped me appreciate how much focus and energy it takes to hide who you are.
Brendan died in a car accident in 2010. In his absence, I’ve tried to continue his work. That’s why I can often be found in a locker room, sharing my story, trying to educate grown men.