Athletes Say ‘You Can Play’

A powerful NHL family takes on homophobia in sports.
by Julia O’Donoghue

After Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar appeared on the baseball diamond with a gay slur written on his eyeblack tape in September, baseball officials decided he needed a talking-to. Naturally, they called Patrick Burke.

The NHL scout for the Philadelphia Flyers earlier this year started the You Can Play Project, a nonprofit dedicated to making sports culture more LGBT-friendly. He and his father, Brian Burke, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, became LGBT rights activists after Patrick’s gay brother Brendan died in a car accident two and a half years ago.

The You Can Play Project produces LGBT-friendly public service announcements with college and professional athletes. The first aired during a professional hockey game on national television last March and featured 12 well-known NHL players. Patrick Burke spoke with Julia O’Donoghue about how athletes can make a difference for LGBT rights. Excerpts:

MEDILL EQUAL MEDIA PROJECT: HOW DID THE YOU CAN PLAY PROJECT GET STARTED? 

Patrick Burke: The You Can Play Project is designed to end homophobia in sports and ensure equal rights for LGBT athletes, coaches and fans. It came about due to my late brother. Brendan was the student manager of [the hockey team at] Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and he came out publicly his senior year. It was very public because my father runs a hockey team, so it was a story on ESPN.com. It got picked up nationally. It was a legitimately big deal, and a couple of months after that he was killed in a car accident. I felt like it was my duty as an older brother to carry on and ensure Brendan’s legacy and to pick up where he left off.

YOU’VE BECOME A “GO-TO” WHEN AN ATHLETE MAKES AN OFFENSIVE REMARK OR MISTAKE. WHY?

We are not a group that is out looking for vengeance. The general atmosphere when an athlete does something like this is often very, very “pitchfork and torches, let’s go get him” type of thing, whereas our group is focused on education. Our main priority when something like this happens is ensuring that it never happens again by working with the athlete to change his or her mind about what happened. We do want to work with—not against—the player, the league, the team, the organization, whatever group it might be.

WHY IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE STRAIGHT ATHLETES AND COACHES AS ALLIES? 

With professional athletes, you’re talking about roles models and, in a very real sense, almost superheroes. You talk to 10, 11, 12-year-old kids and ask them about their favorite athlete, [and] it’s almost like you’re talking about a superhero. They look up to these guys. A lot of young, gay athletes have given up sports because they don’t think they have a future. They say, “There is no gay athlete out there. I’m the only one, so I might as well give it up.” Now we’re building safe homes for these kids, who can say, “OK, if I work hard enough, I can go to Northeastern or I can go to UCLA. I have numerous safe places where I can play in college.” That level of hope is so important for a young athlete or a young person.

DO YOU THINK WE ARE GOING TO SEE AN OUT, GAY ATHLETE ON A PROFESSIONAL SPORTS TEAM?

We have never had an openly gay, active male professional athlete in any of the major North American team sports. I think we will have one within the next two years. The culture has shifted so significantly in the last five to 10 years that I have no doubt in my mind now that the first coming out experience is going to be overwhelmingly positive for that athlete. It is something a lot of people would have disagreed with, even five years ago, but we have systems now in place with all the leagues to work and take care of these athletes. I think fans would be on board.

Other stories

Tuned In

Jorge Valdivia created a safe space for LGBT Latino youth through public radio.
by Jason Lederman

From The Ground Up

When it comes to educating people on LGBT issues, sometimes politicians don’t cut it.
by Julia Haskins

Finding the T

A trans woman comes into her identity through local activism.
by Julia Haskins

© 2012 Medill Equal Media Project
Medill School of Journalism | Northwestern University
Questions? Comments? Email the editor!