Inspired by Brendan Burke's work to promote tolerance for all athletes regardless of their sexual orientation, the You Can Play Project has brought several NHL stars on board to help spread the message of inclusion.
I know Alec Martinez is a recent alumnus of Miami University, where your brother also attended. Can you tell us a little bit about how Martinez decided to get involved? Was there a personal connection there?
All of the guys who were at Miami University when Brendan was there have all told us whatever we need, they’ll do. Three guys play in the National Hockey league like Alec, like Tommy Wingels. They’ve all said anything, anytime—they’re happy to do it.
When the Cup finals rolled around, I got in touch with Alec through the Miami coaches and said, "I don’t want to jinx anything, but if you guys win this thing…Dustin Brown had also already agreed to appear in one, so just get ready, because we’re going to grab you guys right after the ceremony and get you filmed."
In the last couple of years, some retired baseball and football and basketball players have come out. Do you see a greater movement toward acceptance, to the point where an athlete currently playing might come out in one of the major sports? Or are the challenges of prejudice still too great?
I think we’ve hit the tipping point in the last three or four years. I really think we’ve reached a point now where athletes have started speaking out on this issue, sports in general are becoming more accepting about the idea of gay teammates, gay fans, and gay management.
I’ve said this before: I think we’ll have an openly gay NHL player in the next couple of years, here. I really believe that players know that there will be some tough times, there will be some fans who yell dumb stuff— but most of the big names in the National Hockey League are on our campaign now, letting their teammates know that they’re on board. So no matter what team you’re on, you’re going to have some allies.
A player’s team might be more tolerant and accepting than the general public, but it seems like there’s starting to be more of a shift.
They’ve done interesting studies on it. One of the biggest ones was in European football (soccer) in the UK. They did studies and surveys of the fanbases, and over 90% of soccer fans said they would support an openly gay player on their favorite team. And a significant majority, around 70%, also thought that the rest of their fellow fans wouldn’t.
So we have this weird disconnect where everyone’s sitting there going, "Oh, I’m not homophobic, but everyone else is." Really what we just need people to realize is no, you’re not alone. The vast majority of people are on board with this. You can speak up on this issue; you can cheer for a gay player.
Eventually, we hope to reach the point where an athlete’s sexual orientation simply isn’t a story. But right now, it would be a pretty huge story. I’ve read one hockey writer propose the idea that a player might not want to come out publicly since it would create a huge media distraction for the rest of his team. What do you think about that theory?
I understand it, and I think there’s an element of truth to it–because I do believe that at least for a couple of weeks, there would be a little more media attention.
But I do not think that after more than a couple of weeks of it, there’d be any sort of story. I also believe that the player’s teammates would use it as a rallying cry. Every coach, every GM out there, the most powerful thing they use to try to motivate their team is, "Hey, it’s us against the world. It’s us in this room, and everyone else out there is trying to stop us." And this would be a great rallying point for them.
So first of all, I think the media aspect is overblown. Second of all, I think the team aspect would actually benefit from it. Third of all, we know for a fact from talking to any gay athlete who came out in the last five to ten years—now that teammates are more accepting—they all say that when they came out, it improved their performance. They were playing with less fear, they were playing with less hesitation. They were closer with their teammates, and they were more comfortable being themselves. So from an individual perspective, we’re also going to get some better athletes out of this.
About the locker room issue – I know homophobic slurs can be pretty common there. There’s a lot of crude trash talk and banter in general, where teammates joke around in a friendly way, and tease one another and bond. What would you say to players who might not want to change the way they talk around their teammates?
Anyone who thinks we’re trying to be politically correct or change the general tone of the locker room hasn’t really been paying attention, because that’s not at all who I am, or what our charity is, or what we do.
There are absolutely things to joke about. Pretty much, there’s nothing off limits in the locker room.
But when you use certain words—and we call it casual homophobia, using gay slurs when you don’t necessarily mean them as an offense to the gay community, such as "Oh, that’s so gay"—all your gay teammates, closeted or open, all they can think about is, "OK. This guy is never going to accept me. I can never come out to him. I can’t be myself around him." Just that there’s a line.
And frankly, a lot of the gay athletes that I do public speaking with now and engage with regularly say that it became part of [the locker room banter]—not homophobic slurs, but they made jokes about the guy being gay or the woman being lesbian, and it all was in good fun.
I think the best way I’ve ever heard it expressed was by Lee-J Mirasolo, who was an openly gay hockey player at Boston College. She said, "I never wanted my sexual orientation to be something that was laughed at, but I always wanted it to be something that could be joked about." That’s all we’re asking. Let’s get rid of the offensive words.
We see it now—if you go into a locker room where there are black players, no one uses racial slurs, no one says the N word. The black guys will tease the white guys about all different stuff, and it goes back and forth. We’re not trying to make everybody hold hands and get along, so you can only say nice, positive things to each other – no. I grew up in the locker room; I know what it’s like to tease your buddies. That’s how it worked. We don’t want to change that.
You’ve already gotten so many NHL athletes on board in such a short time, and your public service announcements are raising awareness and getting people to talk about this issue in hockey at all levels—college, minor league, major league. What’s next for the You Can Play project?
Next up will be expansion into other sports, both men’s and women’s. We haven’t done enough for female athletes, both in the hockey world and in other sports, so that’s going to be a priority for us over the summer.
Then, we’ll be working on expanding it into the other sports—the big ones being football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and lacrosse. Ideally, we’re going to have meetings with the professional leagues, and hopefully do some things with them. But if for whatever reason that doesn’t work, we’ll be looking at talking to college teams, college players, high school, everything like that.
We certainly hope that goes well. Do you have a message for our readers about how they could support the project if they want to?
The big thing that we need from people right now is to help spread the awareness. Show your friends the video. Follow us on Twitter, @YouCanPlayTeam. Direct people to our website to let people know this is an issue. A lot of people who are aware that it is an issue still aren’t aware that there are people—our group and a few others—who are working to combat it.
As we go into the summer, we’ll be going to open up for more fan videos, where fans can send in their own. For people in the LA area, it looks like we’ll be out there in September.
JFTC would like to thank Patrick Burke for taking time to speak with us about his work on the project. For more information, please visit www.youcanplayproject.org.