A wonderful goal: welcoming gay players

"If you can play, you can play."

That's the simple but powerful message Patrick Burke is bringing to the game of hockey. Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and the son of no-nonsense Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, launched the You Can Play project on Sunday with a public service announcement that ran during the Boston Bruins-New York Rangers game.

In the ad, Burke, his father and 12 of the NHL's biggest names speak out against homophobia on the ice and in the locker room. The message is straightforward and presented without political or religious leanings: Hockey players should be judged on ability, not sexual orientation. No player should feel uncomfortable or unwelcome because of what Burke calls "casual homophobia."

"What we've got in sports now is a culture that we describe as casual homophobia, which is athletes using gay slurs and homophobic slurs far too frequently, but they don't intend them to be homophobic," Patrick Burke said. "So it's an athlete saying, 'Oh, don't be gay.' He or she usually doesn't mean that in a homophobic sense; he or she means 'That's uncool, don't be uncool.' What we need to do is educate athletes that for a person who is a member of the LGBT community, there is no other way for them take that word. And we need to let the athlete know the force that those words have for an LGBT athlete."

The Burke Family

Brendan Burke, who died in a car crash in 2010 at age 21, quit his high school hockey team because he feared how his teammates would react if they found out he was gay.

Burke is continuing the message of his openly gay brother, Brendan, who died in a car accident in 2010 at the age of 21. Brendan quit his high school hockey team because he was worried about the reaction his teammates might have if they found out about his sexuality. He couldn't stay away from the game he loved and became the student manager for the top-ranked Miami (Ohio) hockey team in college. When Brendan came out publicly in 2009, the acceptance of the RedHawks and his family inspired him to become an advocate for tolerance in sports.

After his brother's death, Patrick Burke eulogized Brendan on the website Outsports, coming up with the phrase, "If you can play, you can play." That simple statement turned into the You Can Play project.

"I thought it was a good way to sum up the message," Burke told NHL.com. "This is what the issue is. This defines sports. If you're good enough, you get to be in there, you get to help us win. For the LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) community, that's all they want -- a fair chance."

The You Can Play project mirrors the popular It Gets Better video campaign started by syndicated author and columnist Dan Savage. Burke has already filmed the contributions of 30 NHL players and hopes athletes and fans will be inspired to create and post their own You Can Play videos.

"The messages are very simple, yet meaningful," Burke told The Canadian Press. "It's variations of the idea that all they care about is winning, all they care about is having the best teammates, and it doesn't matter if the best teammate happens to be gay or straight."

Words Are Powerful

The NHL isn't the only league working to promote tolerance. Last season, the NBA teamed up with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and the Ad Council on a Think B4 You Speak campaign. PSAs featuring Grant Hill and Jared Dudley urged people to stop using "gay" to mean stupid. Several MLB teams have contributed videos to the It Gets Better project, and the MLB and NFL collective bargaining agreements were updated with language protecting athletes from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

These initiatives may seem like common sense to many of us, but a message of tolerance and inclusion is not always well-received by sports fans. Immediately following the release of the NBA's Think B4 You Speak PSA, Hill's Twitter feed was flooded with antigay sentiments. About a month earlier, when the NBA fined Kobe Bryant for calling an official an antigay slur, many said the penalty reflected a society that is too sensitive or PC, and argued that athletes shouldn't be subject to punishment or reprimand for their words. But freedom of speech isn't without limitations, and it certainly shouldn't be used to protect hate speech.

If Joe Schmo says something in the privacy of his home, that's one thing. But athletes represent the teams they play for, the leagues they play in and, more important, they are role models for young adults. By putting an end to homophobic comments on the court and in the locker room, they can show younger generations of athletes how to embrace every player, no matter his or her orientation. It's not a matter of appeasing an oversensitive minority or taking the toughness out of the game, it's an acknowledgment that hate speech and bigotry don't have a place in sports.

All too often, a story emerges of a young gay teen who has committed suicide because of bullying. Those who argue that words are not powerful are burying their heads in the sand.

Growing up is hard. Kids will tease their peers for anything. Being too skinny, being too fat, having dark skin, having light skin, being too tall, being too short. It's tough enough to face bullying for something as inconsequential as having too many freckles; imagine being tormented because of something about you that some parents and teachers are unwilling to defend. Imagine hearing family members, friends' parents, politicians, religious figures, celebrities and athletes call you "unnatural" or "wrong" because of your sexuality.

Homophobia permeates all aspects of society, but it's most obvious in testosterone-filled locker rooms. And as Burke explained, people can be traumatized and hurt even by jokes and comments that aren't rooted in antigay sentiment. It's easy to understand why most gay athletes feel compelled to hide the truth from their teammates or even quit altogether because they feel unwelcome.

Patrick Burke doesn't want anyone to experience what his brother did, to miss out on playing the game they love. He hopes the You Can Play project will help fans, players and coaches understand that it's as simple as saying, "If you can play, you can play."

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