Sports
6:42 pm
Sat April 12, 2014

By Helping Gay Athletes, Group Hopes To Refocus On Talent

Originally published on Mon April 14, 2014 1:50 pm

Weeks after finishing his sophomore season at the University of Massachusetts, Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay player in Division 1 men's college basketball.

Gordon told his parents in March, just after UMass lost in the NCAA tournament. A few days later, he told his coach and teammates. And he came out to the rest of the world in an article on ESPN.com Wednesday morning.

More than a year ago, though, Gordon reached out to an organization called You Can Play. It's the same group that helped University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam when he came out in February. (Sam is widely expected to be drafted into the NFL next month, when he would become that league's first openly gay player.)

Two of the organization's founders, Patrick and Brian Burke, explain the group's mission to All Things Considered guest host Tess Vigeland. Its motto is, "If you can play, you can play."

"The one thing that's great about sports is that it's a tremendous equalizer, except in terms of talent. All that matters is how good you are, how hard you've worked, how much preparation you've put in, how naturally talented you are," Patrick Burke says. "And the other things that divide us in society ... none of that matters."

You Can Play started two years ago by focusing on eliminating homophobic language in professional hockey, with PSAs featuring star hockey players.

Since then, they've expanded dramatically. Now, Patrick Burke says, You Can Play works with teams and players in all kinds of situations. The most public example, he says, is helping athletes like Gordon and Sam who want to come out publicly, but need support and guidance through the process.

They also talk with straight players with questions about having a gay teammate, help schools set up diversity seminars, and support professional teams trying to market to LGBT fans.

A Tribute

Part of the reason the organization has been so successful is its proximity to pro sports. Patrick Burke is the director of player safety for the National Hockey League. His dad, Brian, has been a high-profile NHL executive for decades — currently, he's the president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames.

The organization started as a tribute to Patrick's brother, Brendan Burke, who came out in 2009. Coming out drew attention: His father was the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the time. Just a few months later, he died in a car accident on a snowy winter night in Indiana.

"My brother was my best friend," Patrick Burke says. "He was the person I was closest to in this world, and someone I cared about very deeply."

Brendan, five years younger than Patrick, played hockey at the same high school as his brother. But he quit his senior year.

"I never did anything to change the culture in that locker room," Patrick says. "I never knew what effect homophobic slurs had on teammates. I never knew that there was a problem with my language.

"And five years later, Brendan didn't feel safe in that locker room. And I've always regretted the fact that I didn't know better at the time, that I didn't create a safer space for my younger brother to stay in the game."

Going Public

Now, with You Can Play, Patrick Burke is helping players who want to come out publicly. The process can be messy.

"These are human beings. It's not just a story, it's not just a media flash for us," Patrick Burke says. "Derrick Gordon is a 22-year-old kid who is still growing up. He's still in college. And he still needs a lot of guidance."

Though the announcements of Gordon, Sam and Jason Collins of the NBA have all been fairly smooth and well-received, Patrick Burke says that sometimes they don't go so well.

"There are a lot of people who think they want to go public, then they see exactly what it entails and then decide not to," he says. He adds, "There are a lot of people who say they're gonna come out to their team, and then they have a horrible coming out experience at home, and never come out to their team."

Coming out in sports is still a big deal, Brian Burke says. There has been progress, but there's still work to do.

"Biases and ignorance and attitudes of fear, they're not doors that are kicked in. They're walls that crumble over time," he says.

The pioneers, like Sam and Collins, deserve credit for chipping away at the stigma, Brian Burke says.

"I think those men deserve great credit for the courage they've displayed. But the acceptance they've received and the warm welcome they've gotten from the public — I think that's what's paving the way for the next group of athletes to not require so much courage," he says.

Ultimately this father and son pair hopes that athletes' sexual orientation is no longer a story.

"From Day 1, our goal has been that we are not needed. All of us have careers outside of this. All of us have hopes and dreams that go beyond advocacy work," Patrick Burke says. "I don't know what that timeline is. If you'd asked me two years ago when we launched, I'd have said a decade. Now, I think it might even be less."

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Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

This week, yet another barrier fell for gay athletes. Just weeks after finishing his sophomore season at the University of Massachusetts, Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay player in Division I men's college basketball. Gordon told his parents in March, his coach and teammates last week. But more than a year ago, he told people at an organization called You Can Play. It's the same group that helped University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam when he came out a couple of months ago.

PATRICK BURKE: We try and pride ourselves on being almost like a Wal-Mart, one-stop shopping for all your LGBT sports needs.

VIGELAND: That's Patrick Burke, one of the founders of You Can Play. The nonprofit works with teams and players in all kinds of situations, athletes who want to come out publicly, straight players with questions about having a gay teammate, schools looking for help with diversity seminars and more. Part of the reason you can play has been so successful is its proximity to pro sports. Patrick Burke is the director of players safety for the National Hockey League. His dad Brian has been a high-profile NHL executive for decades.

I talked with both of them this week. Brian Burke explained to us that the organization started as a tribute to his son and Patrick's brother Brendan Burke, a high school athlete who came out back in 2009.

BRIAN BURKE: It was a national news story because at the time his father was the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

VIGELAND: That being you.

BURKE: That was me. And we lost Brendan tragically in a car accident later that year in the hockey season. And then Patrick really came up with this idea and put it together to, you know, commemorate and really celebrate all that Brendan had accomplished. So, I'll turn it over to Patrick.

BURKE: Yeah, I think what Brendan stood for was the idea that sports is a welcoming community that needs to do a better job welcoming the LGBT community. And the one thing that's great about sports is that it's a tremendous equalizer, except in terms of talent. All that matters is how good you are, how hard you've worked, how much preparation you've put in, how naturally talented you are.

And the other things that divide us in society, whether it's your sexual orientation, your gender, your gender identity, your race, your religion, your, you know, any of the thousands of other labels that people like to put on each other, none of that matters. So our motto is if you can play, you can play.

VIGELAND: Patrick, why was it important to you to start an organization like this?

BURKE: My brother was my best friend. He was the person I was closest to in this world, and someone I cared about very deeply. So when he left hockey as a senior in high school, we had gone to the same high school. We were five years apart, and I had been a player on the varsity team. And I never did anything to change the culture in that locker room. I never knew what affect homophobic slurs had on teammates.

I never knew that there was a problem with my language. And five years later, Brendan didn't feel safe in that locker room. And I've always regretted the fact that I didn't know better at the time, that I didn't create a safer space for my younger brother to stay in the game. I think it's my responsibility and our responsibility as an organization to make up for that and make the sports world welcoming, not just in that one hockey locker room, but in every locker room at every level.

VIGELAND: What do you do when an athlete gets in touch with you?

BURKE: Most of what I do personally is a behind the scenes thing. But as an organization, first and foremost is taking care of the athlete's needs, making sure that he or she is prepared for what's coming. There are a lot of people who think they want to go public, and then they see exactly what it entails and they decide not to.

There are a lot of people who think, you know, I really want to work with LGBT youth, and then it turns out they're really bad with kids. There are a lot of people who say they're going to come out to their team, and then they have a horrible coming out experience at home and never come out to their team.

So the first thing that we do is prioritize the athlete. These are human beings. It's not just a story. It's not just a media flash for us. It's, you know, Derrick Gordon is a 22-year-old kid who is still growing up. He's still in college, and he still needs a lot of guidance.

So we work with them to get them ready. We coordinate the media launch. We coordinate media outlets. We work with the team, the coaches, in this case the athletic department at UMass to make sure that everyone is ready, prepared, and well-spoken when this comes up.

VIGELAND: It seems like maybe, maybe we're reaching some sort of critical mass at this point, even though there have only been, what, maybe half a dozen announcement recently. But they have been very high profile; Jason Collins of the NBA, Michael Sam, Derrick Gordon. I wonder, Brian, do you think we are getting to the point where this is no big deal?

BURKE: Yes, I do. We're not there yet, but I told this story when I gave a speech last week. There were 3,000 kids in my high school, and not one of them was gay. You know, of course a scad of them were gay.

VIGELAND: Right.

BURKE: But back then, in 1970, if you were a male and came out as gay, you were at significant risk. And so there were no gay students. And you compare that to now, the progress we've made, you know, the LGBT community has made in that time. But I don't think it's any greater than women have made in that time and people of color have made in that time.

And, you know, biases and ignorance and attitudes of fear, they're not doors that are kicked in. There are walls that crumble over time. Time is the greatest ally as we fight this prejudice and this bigotry. And, yes, I hope there's a day, Tess, when we're talking about hockey on this show and not athletes coming out.

I do think the pioneers deserve credit. I do think the Sams and the Collins, I think those men deserve great credit for the courage they've displayed. But the acceptance they've received and the warm welcome they've gotten from the public, I think that's what's paving the way for the next group of athletes to not require so much courage.

VIGELAND: Yeah. Patrick, what is your hope for the future of your organization?

BURKE: Our goal is to shut down. From day one, our goal has been that we are not needed. All of us have careers outside of this, all of us have hopes and dreams that go beyond advocacy work. Our goal is that we get to a point in the sports world where this type of education is no longer needed.

I don't know what that timeline is. If you had asked me two years ago when we launched, I would have said about a decade. Now I think it might even be less. What we want to is to get to the point where athletes like Jason Collins or Robbie Rogers or Brittney Griner are bringing their partner to the rink or to the game, and it's just seen as entirely and completely normal. And once we get there, we know we've done a good job.

VIGELAND: That's Patrick Burke. He's the president of You Can Play, and he joined us with his father Brian Burke, who is the president of hockey operation for the Calgary Flames. Thanks so much to both of you.

BURKE: Thank you.

BURKE: Thank you, Tess. Thanks for having us on. It's important stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIGELAND: Coming up, as Twitter followers of musicians Ted Leo and Aimee Mann know, their dark introspective brilliant lyrics don't really hint at how funny they are. When they started touring together, they tweeted snarky comments to each other while riding on the same tour bus. Do you have any examples of the profound conversations that took place there?

AIMEE MANN: Uh, hi. Are we out of peanut butter?

TED LEO: Yeah, it was that kind of thing, yeah.

MANN: Yeah, I don't know. It was really - the dumber the better.

VIGELAND: Together, Amy Mann and Ted Leo are The Both, and they joins us in a bit on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIGELAND: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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