By Ryan Collett
Recent efforts to stop anti-gay discrimination have broadened into the world of sports with the launch of the You Can Play project. The organization was founded by Patrick Burke, a scout for hockey team the Philadelphia Flyers, and his father, Brian Burke, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. They debuted their organization on March 6th with a public service announcement that played during a National Hockey League game.
The PSA features NHL players promoting the simple message, “If you can play, you can play.” Both Burkes appear, with son Patrick saying their mission is to, “Ensure that LGBT athletes around the world are afforded equal opportunity, judged only by the talent, character, and work ethic in their sport.”
The Burkes were inspired to launch the You Can Play project after Patrick’s younger brother, Brendan, died in a car accident in 2010. Brendan, also an avid hockey fan, was gay and quit playing hockey at his high school for fear of being tormented by his peers if he came out.
You Can Play takes an approach similar to the It Gets Better campaign, filming prominent figures in the public eye promoting LGBT acceptance. You Can Play focuses specifically on the world of sports, where homophobia has often been a problem.
The You Can Play project and other organizations such as Athlete Ally and GLAAD’s Sports Media Program come at a time when national sports leagues, particularly those in the United States, have come under recent criticism by human rights activists for their neglect to crack down on institutionalized 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,” said Patrick Burke to ESPN. Just last year, Los Angeles Lakers star player, Kobe Bryant was fined by the NBA for calling a referee a gay slur during a game. While Bryant was fined a hefty fee of $100,000 for the remark, Burke says that education and awareness is the key to creating tolerance.
“What we need to do is educate athletes. We need to let the athlete know the force that those words have for an LGBT athlete,” said Burke.
In May of last year, Phoenix Suns president, Rick Welts, revealed in a Sunday New York Times article that he is gay. The NBA has since partnered with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and the Ad Council for a campaign called Think B4 You Speak, which seeks to stop athletes from using homophobic slurs and insults.
“I certainly think there’s more discussion, there’s more conversation about this subject matter than at any other time,” said Phoenix Suns player, Grant Hill, in an NPR interview. “And I think more and more, people are more comfortable with coming out and expressing themselves.”
These LGBT programs strive to create a culture of acceptance in professional sports, and have the power to change minds beyond those of the players alone. People are more likely to promote acceptance when they have the examples of their sports heroes doing the same.