Last updated: April 4, 2012 11:25 am
You must play
"You Can Play" initiative strives to make hockey more inclusive
FREDERICTON (CUP) — You've got to hand it to Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. Even as his Maple Stinks continued clogging up the NHL toilet and a Don Cherry bomb was dropped on him on Coach’s Corner in early March, Burke and his son, Patrick — a scout with the Flyers — released a powerful public service announcement, which was first shown on NBC on March 4.
Backed up by stars like Henrik Lundqvist, Duncan Keith, Corey Perry and Daniel Alfredsson, among others, the Burkes stood in front of a camera and told the story of their son and brother, Brendan. Brendan Burke announced to the world that he was gay in an ESPN.com article on December 2, 2009, called ‘We love you, this won’t change a thing,’ by John Buccigross. I implore all of you to read the piece, along with Bruce Arthur's story on Brendan Burke for the National Post and Mary Rogan's piece for GQ.
The Burkes launched an initiative called You Can Play, encouraging homosexuals to enter the macho, and sometimes homophobic, world of sports. Brian Burke has marched in the Toronto Gay Pride Parade the past two years, once with Rick Mercer alongside, and with “BRENDAN 88” emblazoned on a Leafs sweater. Once upon a time, the idea of a bear of an NHL team president like Burke participating in the parade was likely as a flock of multi-coloured balloons at a Rick Santorum rally.
At the time of his announcement, Brendan Burke was a student manager for the University of Miami (Ohio) RedHawks. Only two months after he courageously came out of the closet, Burke died in a car accident on a snowy road in Indiana. His friend Mark Reedy was in the car and passed away as well. Burke was 21 years old; Reedy, just 18.
That same night, the RedHawks were playing. After the second period, head coach Enrico Blasi was greeted outside the locker room by Rick Vaive, former Leafs captain and father of RedHawk Justin Vaive. After the game, Blasi relayed the news Vaive had told him and watched the locker room fill up with tears and silence.
I know this because Rick Vaive is my uncle and Justin is my first cousin. Rick told me that, at the wake, Brian Burke told him that Brendan “made 10 friends every day.”
The public depiction of Brendan wasn’t about creating a narrative about a nice man who died too young; it was honest appraisal of a kid who captured everyone’s love, put smiles on faces and, through his kindness, made his sexuality irrelevant.
Now a plan is in place to make those who want to be in sports, whether it’s in management or on-field, comfortable in the locker room like Brendan Burke was. After coming out, his relationship with the team didn’t change at all, which is the real victory.
Female athletes have been public for decades. The stigma for individual-sport athletes, including Canadian gold medal swimmer Mark Tewksbury, doesn’t seem prevalent. In team athletics, Burke and the NBA's John Amaechi were step one. Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts coming out of the closet was step two. The next domino to fall is for an active player in a North American professional sports league to announce that he prefers the company of the same sex.
Gay men are out there on NFL fields, NBA courts, NHL ice and countless university locker rooms. One day, one of them will go public, hopefully by the player's own volition and not by a camera phone and Twitter account. I only wish Brendan Burke were around to see that day — the day this issue is put to rest.