If you tuned into the NBC’s Bruins-Rangers broadcast Sunday, you may have seen a PSA featuring a bevy of top NHL players with a simple message: If you can play, you can play.
The PSA introduced the brand new You Can Play Project, co-founded by Patrick Burke, a Philadelphia Flyers scout, brother of the late Brendan Burke and son of Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman. You Can Play’s stated mission is as follows:
You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.
You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success.
You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.
How is respect gained in hockey? A blocked shot, a hard body check, a goal, an assist, or maybe a good hustle play. The You Can Play Project means to keep it that way.
A player being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender wouldn’t affect that player’s ability to block a shot, deliver a hard body check, score a goal, record an assist or hustle for a loose puck. On the ice, a hockey player is a hockey player. There’s no need for another identifier.
Patrick Burke’s younger brother Brendan experienced the same acceptance when he came out to the Miami University hockey team, where he served as a student manager. The RedHawks accepted Brendan as part of their “Brotherhood” no matter what. In fact, Miami head coach Enrico Blasi and former RedHawks Tommy Wingels and Andy Miele are part of You Can Play’s advisory board.
The You Can Play Project aims to make that the norm across all teams in all sports through education as Patrick Burke explained to Joe Yerdon of Pro Hockey Talk:
“We’re about education. We’re not about anything else. We’re not about punishment or vilifying or making enemies. We’re just here to show people what the issues are and how best to combat them,” Burke says
Through education, Burke hopes to reach a lofty goal as he told Dan Steinberg of the DC Sports Bog:
“The end goal of our project is that we’re completely useless. We want the day to come when it’s not a story when an athlete comes out, when athletes are only judged by how they can help their teams win.”
Perhaps it won’t take very long to render this project “useless.” That’s not to say it will be easy, but as we are finding out more often, particularly in hockey, there is a wide cross-section of the sports community that would be accepting of a gay athlete.
Still, we haven’t seen an active NHLer make that brave step of coming out. It really hasn’t happened in North American team sports, where an active player has admitted to being gay. As Patrick Burke told, Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy, he thinks we may be about one year away from it happening in hockey.
With the overwhelming support the You Can Play Project has already received in the 24 hours since its launch, this could be that difference-making organization that helps provide that nudge.
Numerous straight allies in the form of some of the biggest stars in the NHL are also helping You Can Play give that extra push.
As Bruce Arthur of the National Post reported in a terrific piece about You Can Play, 35 NHL players have signed onto the project. The impact of these straight athletes serving as allies is key to the project’s success as Brian Burke explained to Arthur:
“Everyone knows who Chara is, and how tough he is, and by the way he’s just a wonderful person, just a gem of a human being. And you see him, and I think it validates the message, and authenticates the message, because everyone knows who he is and everyone knows how he plays. And for him to say, ‘I support the gay community and I want you to, too,’ I think is a very strong message. I’m proud of the players that are doing this.”
It’s barely been 24 hours since the You Can Play Project officially launched, and in that span it has already touched thousands of people and will likely reach thousands more before the week is out. If it’s already making an impact within 24 hours, who knows where it can go next.
The You Can Play Project has already eclipsed 2,500 Twitter followers, while Patrick Burke went over 1,000, both in their first day on the social media platform. With every follow and retweet on Twitter, or every share and like on Facebook, people are making a statement that there is an appetite for acceptance in sports. Athletes and fans alike are also urged to take a stand on You Can Play’s website.
While retweeting and sharing is a positive step, it is important to remember that there are measures that must be taken during daily life to help You Can Play reach its goals.
Providing a safe and welcoming environment can begin with ending homophobic slurs, or what Patrick Burke calls casual homophobia. That’s a pretty easy first step that will easily lead to other positive steps in erasing homophobia from sports.
The hockey community always seems to find a way to take care of its own. Whether it’s rallying around an injured player, hosting a charity hockey tournament, or just giving a teammate a ride to practice, the hockey community steps up.
Just as it stepped up to accept Brendan Burke, the hockey community will step up again, in even larger numbers, when that first NHL player is ready to come out.
We can hope that player, whoever it may be, will be celebrated for his courage, but will have already gained his due respect based on the content of his character and performance on the ice. If he can play, he will play with thousands of fans cheering him just as fiercely as the other 11 guys on the ice.