When we celebrate Jackie Robinson Day in baseball each April —the anniversary of the Brooklyn Dodger’s breaking the color barrier—I always wonder if a gay ballplayer would summon up the courage of the late Hall of Famer who dealt with overt racism in baseball and in the U.S. and come out. We are still waiting for a gay athlete as strong as Robinson who would be willing to endure a potential barrage of taunts from teammates, opponents and fans.
No professional male athlete has ever come out of the closet while actively playing. It has happened at the collegiate level, but not professionally. Most likely the reason is centered on the fear of reaction from the teammates. How will he be perceived in the locker room?
When Brendan Burke, 21, a former hockey goalie and student manager of the Miami (Ohio) University ice hockey team and son of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke came out as gay in November 2009, there was also a flood of international support by news outlets and fans. Brendan advocated tolerance and spoke out against homophobia in professional sports.
His father, who was also the GM for the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team in Vancouver, issued a statement: “I had a million good reasons to love and admire Brendan. This news didn’t alter any of them… There are gay men in professional hockey. We would be fools to think otherwise. And it’s sad that they feel the need to conceal this. I understand why they do so, however… Since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe! I simply could not be more proud of Brendan than I am, and I love him as much as I admire him.” Tragically, young Brendan Burke was killed in a car accident two months later.
|Patrick and Brian Burke|
Recently, Brendan’s brother Patrick, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers; Brian Kitts, a former marketing official for the Colorado Avalanche; and Glen Witman, founder and president of Gforcesports.org formed a project called YouCan Play.
Using testimonials through videos from a growing cadre of current players in the National Hockey League, You Can Play’s primary goal is to change the mindset so many believe controls pro locker rooms today and make the environment safer for a gay pro athlete to be out—not just in hockey but all sports pro and amateur.In an exclusive interview I had with one of the co-founders of You Can Play, Brian Kitts, we learn that for gay pro athletes, it may be getting better.
Steve Charing: We know that Brendan Burke's coming out and later his tragic death inspired You Can Play. Were there any plans afoot prior to these events that may have led to a similar project?
Brian Kitts: We share a platform with a number of projects goals of erasing intolerance and promoting equality, including programs founded by other athletes. You Can Play is different in that the partnership is between gay and straight allies, and that the focus is solely on changing the culture of sport. We don’t ask our supporters or video messengers to take a stand on marriage or workplace equality, for instance. We’re specifically trying to change the culture of locker rooms and arenas.
SC: The roster of supporters from NHL players seems to be growing steadily. How are the team members contacted?
BK: Brian and Patrick Burke have done the heavy lifting of contacting general managers and individual players to participate. We’ve been honored to have a number of players volunteer after having heard about You Can Play. There’s something truly inspirational about some of the guys who just showed up unannounced Ottawa to shoot a video segment. And, players who take time out to make videos while they’re on the road – Brooks Orpik and Cal Clutterbuck on visits to Denver, for example, have gone the extra mile. And, standouts like Tommy Wingels and Andy Miele made part of the effort possible by being the first to volunteer and the first to write checks.
SC: To what extent has there been resistance? That is, was any overt homophobia encountered in attempting to enlist supporters? Are those players who are participating experiencing any "harassment" or are they generally receiving support?
BK: We’ve heard nothing but positive response from fans and other players and executives for those who have participated. Frankly, if there has been resistance, it’s been limited and silent. You learn as much from those who ignore your requests than those who say yes or tell you no from the start. We can count those men on one hand.
SC: Obviously, I'm not asking to name names, but do you believe there is at least one active NHL player who is gay?
BK: Of course, there have been and are gay and lesbian players at all levels of hockey. The percentages point to a number of gay teammates in the NHL and any sport – let’s be clear that You Can Play started with hockey, but the issues and opportunities for acceptance apply to any sport at any level.
SC: A campaign such as this one would surely help ease the burden of a gay player to come out. What do you see as the likelihood such a revelation would take place in the next couple of years?
BK: Gay players will be visible soon. Film, music, the military and corporate life are now places where men and women can be openly gay. Sports, incredibly, remains [a place] where discrimination is tolerated and assumed. We’ve found that many, many players aren’t homophobic, but have never been asked to say otherwise.
SC: In your view, is hockey better suited for this development than other sports and if so, why?
BK: Hockey, like many sports, is a big family. All sports stress the same things: teamwork, hard work, talent and skill – all things that You Can Play wants recognized ahead of sexual orientation or other factors. There’s an irony in hockey being the sometimes rough sport it is being asked to take the lead with You Can Play and we’re all grateful. Patrick, Glenn and I all have some background in hockey and it made perfect sense to us to start there. But, you’re going to see the same terrific response in lacrosse, soccer, rowing, baseball, football and any sport where effort and winning are valued.
SC: We have seen a few pro athletes come out as gay after their active careers ended. If a gay hockey player comes out while actively playing, what impact do you believe this would have on other professional sports?
BK: The first several players to come out, in any sport, will have tremendous impact and serve as role models for gay and straight athletes alike. The history of sport is highlighted by “firsts” among races, religions and other factors that we think make us different. They set standards for success that gay and lesbian athletes will follow. At some point, a player’s sexual orientation will be a footnote in the history of an athlete’s or team’s success.
And in their own words, some of the NHL participants' comments.