Brendan Burke was the son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke. He "came out", revealing his homosexuality, to his family in 2007. Coming out is an extremely difficult experience for someone trying to come to grips with such a defining aspect of their identity. Some individuals may encounter more acceptance and fewer problems than others but it's never easy. Imagine taking that step when your family is heavily immersed in the rugged world of professional hockey.
Brendan was fortunate in that his family accepted him with unconditional love and support. This allowed him the confidence to go public, which he did in 2009 while serving as the student manager and video assistant for the men's hockey team at Miami (Ohio) University, for the sakes of those who weren't as fortunate in terms of receiving love and support. He wanted to encourage tolerance and understanding within the world of hockey, spreading the simple philosophy of "If you can play, you can play".
Tragically, Brendan was killed in a car accident in 2010. His brother Patrick, a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers, along with their father Brian, has taken up the cause, launching the You Can Play Project to honor Brendan's memory by continuing to spread his message.
The project's mission 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."
Several NHL players, including the Lightning's own Steven Stamkos, are supporting the campaign by appearing in public service announcements (PSAs) and speaking out about the matter to the media. (see Stamkos' video below)
"Patrick approached me and asked if I was interested in being part of that program," Stamkos told us when we asked about his involvement with You Can Play. "I thought it was a great cause. Obviously it was near and dear to him and his family and to what his brother was trying to do before the accident.
"You look at all the other players that got involved and you can see it's a great cause. I wanted to help raise some awareness for that situation. I think the players who are involved and coming forward are going to open a lot of eyes. You know, hopefully our sport can be more proactive when it comes to situations like this. I think it's been a great success and I hope we can keep building some awareness."
We had the opportunity to talk with Patrick Burke about the You Can Play campaign and the project's goals as they pertain to the world of hockey and the culture of sports in general.
RAW CHARGE: This seems like such a simple and easy-to-implement philosophy; why isn't it something that was introduced before now?
PATRICK BURKE: I think what we've seen in the last roughly five or so years in the world of athletics is that we've hit kind of a tipping point. And what numerous studies show and what experts that I've spoken with who are active in this type of work have all confirmed is that, in the last five or six years, the harassment and stigma that gay athletes feel have been significantly less. Now, those still exist and there's still a problem obviously, but the generation of athletes that we have now does not really consider this to be an issue. So the timing was right for us to get involved and get this going.
RC: Were you surprised by how the players have embraced this project?
PB: A little bit. We knew we had good support and that the NHL community is the best community in the sports world and that they take great care of each other and really stand up for each other. But we were still a little overwhelmed when players started reaching out to us and going out of their way and clearing time and making real efforts to get it done. For example, Stamkos. Stammer and Brian Campbell, the two who are in our most recent PSA. Both, due to conflicts, weren't able to make it to our original scheduling in Ottawa at the All-Star Game. They could have gone on, not gotten back to us and not participated and it wouldn't have been a big issue. And instead, they each emailed and called me separately to see if we could set up something for the next day. So the day of the skills competition, Stammer and Soupy both took time off from their day, from everything else they had to do and went out of their way to schedule a special time to film the PSA. We were not surprised, but very touched by the effort they've put into this.
RC: The NHL has a considerably lower media profile than other team sports. Do you think that makes it easier or harder to launch an initiative like this?
PB: I think that knowing our players, knowing our league, knowing our management, it wouldn't have mattered. I think this is something our guys genuinely support and their support isn't contingent on this being a public relations event or anything like that. The interviews that the players are giving, the statements that they're making about their gay teammates, that this is something that they're standing up for. I think they would all welcome a little more media scrutiny on this and would welcome the opportunity to let their feelings be known.
RC: Everyone knows that locker room humor can be pretty brutal; it's often foul, very personal and definitely not for the thin-skinned. What would you say to people who would see this as a way of trying to mandate some sort of "politically correct" behavior?
PB: I would say that anyone who has had a beer with me or my father knows that is absolutely not the case and absolutely not what we're trying to do. What we are trying to do is make it so these athletes can feel comfortable. And for most of the gay athletes that we've worked with, once they came out and their teammates were all on board and supportive, there were jokes made about them being gay. Not homophobic jokes, but jokes were made about their sexual orientation and they were often crude and off-color and we're totally okay with that. It's the words that really hurt. The words that scare and intimidate and bully that we have an issue with. Making fun of somebody as part of bonding and locker room time, we fully support that as healthy team bonding, as long as it doesn't cross that line."
RC: If you could get another sport to join forces, what sport would that be, and why?
PB: Our intention is to spread into all sports at all levels. We're not just limiting ourselves to hockey or the National Hockey League. We have a long-term plan involving all men's and women's sports at all levels.
RC: What kind of message do you want to send to fans that use words like 'gay' to dismiss or criticize something they simply don't like?
PB: The same thing that we tell players. What most people who use those words will say is "I don't mean it in that way" and we call that casual homophobia. Most people do not intend that to be meant in a homophobic sense. They'll say, "Oh that's so gay", meaning "that's uncool". We're just trying to educate people that for a gay person, for a gay athlete, for another gay fan, for someone within your earshot who's hearing those things, there's no other way for them to take that word. You know, no one would ever use a racial slur and then say "oh, I mean it in a different way". And we just need to get people to realize that. What we always tell our athletes is that when you use those words in your locker room and there's a gay teammate who's struggling with his or her identity and trying to come to grips with his or her orientation, that kind of word carries weight and it harms them and it harms their ability to feel comfortable around you.
RC: Who do you think is more likely to be more accepting of an openly gay player, fans of that player's team or their teammates?
PB: They've done studies and one of the weird disconnects that fans have is that most fans think that they as individuals are not homophobic but that the rest of the fans are. It's something like 80% or 90% of fans. The most recent study was done in England and featured soccer fans, who are not exactly known for being polite or kind. In fact, some of them make Flyers fans look downright friendly. And it was about 85% of those fans who said that they believed that they would happily support an openly gay player but they believed that the fan next to them wouldn't. Well, 85% said they would, so there's this disconnect of "I'm not homophobic, but the guy next to me is". When really the vast majority of people; fans and athletes, people support this and are friendly and accepting.
RC: Your message is aimed towards players; do you hope this is something that takes root with young players who are in the process of developing habits or are you hoping to change the established behavior of those who might be set in their ways?
PB: We think that involving the players that we do, with the mix of players we have, that we can appeal to lots of people. We have about 50 players with 40 filming PSAs and the other 10 or so who have expressed support other ways. Some of them are role players, some of them are superstars, some will probably be in the Hall of Fame some day while others are heavyweights. And the only requirement we have is that they be character guys and we think that everyone who's involved in You Can Play has been an athlete that young athletes can look up to and emulate. Anyone who says that athletes aren't role models really isn't paying attention. So we hope that young athletes, like those in the Tampa Bay area who look up to Steven Stamkos can now look up to him and say "Well, he supports gay teammates and he's successful so that's something that I should carry into my locker room as well"
RC: And aside from players, do you see this program benefitting those who might aspire to front office and coaching jobs?
PB: The way we recruited players was through all the general managers. My father and I sent emails to the other 29 GMs requesting players and every one of them was incredibly helpful and supportive. So management is on board as well and hopefully members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community who might not be great athletes but love sports will find that there are other avenues that they can work in within the world of sports that are just as fulfilling and where they will be accepted.