Yesterday, the NBA's Jason Collins came out as gay via a Sports Illustrated cover story, making him the first athlete in a major professional team sport to do so. With the NBA being the most culturally diverse of the four major leagues, it may not be a surprise that a basketball player was the first to cross that line, widely held as one of the last significant cultural barriers to be breached. While still undoubtedly an act that required courage and conviction, Collins' announcement comes at a time when social attitudes toward the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) are shifting toward wider mainstream tolerance. The NHL, frequently criticized for being less than progressive in many areas, has actually been at the forefront in regards to fostering attitudes of inclusion and acceptance, as evidenced by their ongoing relationship with the You Can Play project.
You Can Play is an organization that exists to combat homophobia in sports. Self-described as "Gay athletes, straight allies, teaming up for respect", their mission statement reads, "You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team's success. You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete's skills, work ethic and competitive spirit." Summed up simply, the message is, "If you can play, you can play".
About a year ago, we interviewed Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke, the co-founder of You Can Play just as the fledgling project was starting to take off. Since then, the organization has grown and increased their social footprint as well as their outreach. In April, You Can Play inked a formal partnership with the NHL and the NHLPA (National Hockey League Players Association) for the purpose of promoting acceptance and inclusion in hockey. We recently caught up with Patrick and asked him about the year in review as well as what the future holds.
So you've got a whole year under your belt. How are things going?
Things are pretty great. Fortunately for us, the NHL and its players are already very supportive. It makes things easier when the payers are taking the initiative in finding ways to get involved and when the teams are supportive. Now with this partnership with the league and the players association, we’re welcomed in the locker room, we’re welcomed in the arenas and we’re welcomed into having discussions with the players. It makes things a lot easier for us. It was a long year, it was a busy year but we’re getting closer to where we need to be.
Did you encounter any unexpected challenges?
Generally speaking, no. We didn't come into this anticipating trouble but without saying it’s been easy, we haven’t encountered significant problems.
When you show up at an arena now, do people see you as a scout for the Flyers or as the You Can Play guy?
Oh, I don’t think people see me as anything (laughs). I don’t know. I think obviously I’m still doing all my work for Philly and that’s my primary focus unless I need to adapt. The only time I’m the You Can Play guy is when something happens and I have to talk about it.
A lot of our readers are devoted followers of the Lightning's AHL affiliate in Syracuse and are wondering if the Crunch have plans to get involved with You Can Play.
The Crunch were among the many, many teams that offered to contribute a PSA (Public Service Announcement) video for us. The sheer number of teams wanting to get involved has been almost overwhelming. But then things got a little hectic in the AHL this year because of the lockout and the rosters were constantly in flux. By the time the NHL got going, half the guys on the team would be on the move at any given time. We anticipate stepping things up over this summer. With a normal calendar, we’re hoping to increase our involvement with all those teams
Considering how contentious the negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA were last fall, it almost seems like an impressive accomplishment in itself just to get them to enter into an agreement of any kind. Tell us about what this partnership means for You Can Play.
It’s a big deal. It’s tremendous credit to the leadership of both the league and the players association and it allows us to do some really important work in providing resources and education for NHL players that they might not have known were available to them.
When we spoke last year, you expressed hope about getting involved with other sports and leagues. How are things progressing in terms of that outreach?
We have spoken with every other league, and we've talked about some different things. It’s just one of those things where we have to be patient. Now with the NHL, we've provided the blueprint for the rest of the leagues on how partnerships can be structured, what they look like and what they entail. And now we just have to hope that we can spread our involvement.
While there's obviously progress being made, there are still incidents that suggest that everyone is not quite on board, such as the remarks made by San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver. Do things like that make your job harder?
If those incidents didn't occur, if people didn't use those words, we wouldn't have a need to exist anyway. So when players do things like that, it’s disappointing but for the most part, that’s why were here. So getting frustrated or annoyed would just be counter productive.
The Blackhawks' Duncan Keith recently made some dismissive remarks toward a female reporter. Is sexism a problem that needs as much scrutiny as homophobia?
Obviously, we're against sexism. I hope I don’t have to even say that. But when you're dealing with sexual issues pertaining to sexuality or sexual orientation, there’s certainly an element of overlap when it comes to gender issues. So to an extent, when it comes to incidents like that, it's not really our battle. Maybe what we need is, or somebody needs is an organization similar to You Can Play that deals with sexism, since our scope is limited to fighting homophobia and not branching out into other areas, no matter how important they are.
What can we look forward to in the future from You Can Play?
With the new partnership between us, the league and the players association, we'll have more access to players and other resources. Look for more players involved in PSAs and that kind of thing. To what extent, who will be involved and what they’ll look like is still up for discussion but you can anticipate seeing a lot more stuff soon.
Fans seeking to get involved and show support for the You Can Play project can visit their website at http://youcanplayproject.org/
The entire Raw Charge staff contributed to this article.