Patrick Burke is a founder of the You Can Play Project and a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers.
In the same week that much of the country was congratulating Washington Wizards centerJason Collins for coming out as the first openly gay male athlete on a major league sports team, I met with a National Hockey League player about why tweeting “no homo” is unacceptable, and I addressed a Major League Soccer team whose player had taunted an opponent with an anti-gay slur.
While many sports fans were shocked by the ignorance of Miami Dolphin Mike Wallace, who questioned, right after Collins came out, why any man would be gay when there are “all these beautiful women in the world,” I just sighed. Wallace’s question wouldn’t even make the top 10 list of ignorant things I’ve been asked by professional athletes in the past year.
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.
People always ask me what these sessions are like. Truthfully, I don’t even know what to call them. They’re sure as hell not “sensitivity training.” There’s nothing sensitive about professional sports. Also, I end up doing a lot of swearing.
In every professional sport, in every city, the locker rooms all feel pretty much the same. I make my way down a hallway, past a medical room with a couple of massage tables, past an equipment room stacked with gear — it’s manned by an overweight guy with a filthy sense of humor and a stupid nickname. I walk into a carpeted room where 25 guys sit in expensive stalls bearing their nameplates. Above the doorway, the coaches have painted a slogan about teamwork, or unity, or pain. In the center of the room is the team’s logo, and you’re not allowed to step on it.
The questions, too, are remarkably similar from one place to the next. The most common one I hear: “Will he look at me in the shower?” I say no. After that, it’s often: “I’m Christian. How do I deal with this?” I suggest that treating those around you with respect is a central tenet of Christianity. The hope is that providing a space to ask questions will clear up the confusion and alleviate the concerns.
I also always speak alongside a LGBT athlete, so that the voices most affected can help drive the discussion and so that it’s not so abstract. Players may think they don’t want a gay teammate. But if they see someone who is a great athlete and fun to hang out with — and who happens to be gay — they might change their minds.
It’s hard to know how much sinks in. Some athletes have surprised me, though. Last fall I worked with shortstop Yunel Escobar, then of the Toronto Blue Jays, after he walked on the field with a homophobic slur written in his eye black. When Escobar was featured recently in USA Today, he repeated almost word for word the points I had tried to drive home. I’m pretty sure he believed them. I can usually tell when people don’t.
When Collins was asked how he expects to be received in the locker room, he said, “I’ll be waiting for someone to make the first joke, we’ll all laugh, and then we’ll get out there and play.”
That’s my sense, too, of how things tend to work. The sports world is about as politically incorrect as you can get, and it always will be. Collins’s teammates will make fun of him for being gay. And that’s a good thing. If his teammates weren’t cracking jokes at his expense, that would mean they were uncomfortable about his coming out and felt the topic was off-limits. The usual banter is much better than silence.
But the key is understanding the difference between joking that reinforces team bonding and language that offends. Until that’s clear, I’ll keep going from going from city to city, team to team, league to league, making the long walk down the locker room hallway to a roomful of athletes with questions. I’ll fight to be patient, no matter how absurd the questions may seem.