The NHL speaks up against homophobia and discrimination? Seems they’re trying, and that alone is worthy of applause. The attempt stems from the work of the advocacy group You Can Play, “dedicated to providing positive messages from athletes, coaches and fans.” From the You Can Play project’s press release:
The You Can Play project, with the backing of numerous National Hockey League players and other supporters, today is launching an aggressive advocacy program to change the sometimes homophobic culture of locker rooms with a message that athletes should be judged on athletic skill and ability, not sexual orientation or other discriminatory factors.
A large number of high-profile NHL players, including several All-Stars, are filming public service announcements (PSAs) in support of You Can Play. The first PSA debuts during the first intermission of today’s NBC Sports broadcast of the game between the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins, with others to follow shortly. All videos can be found at YouCanPlayproject.org, which also will serve as a resource for straight and gay athletes, coaches and fans.
“The goals for You Can Play are clear,” according to co-founder Patrick Burke. “We want to make locker rooms safe for all athletes, rather than places of fear, slurs and bullying. The casual homophobia in sports has to change, so all athletes know that what counts is whether you can play the game.”
Burke, a scout for the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, has been a straight ally in sports since his younger brother Brendan came out as gay while manager of the Miami University ice hockey team. Brendan’s story became national news because of his closeness to the NHL and took on deeper meaning when he was killed in a 2010 car accident. Burke’s father, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, has joined Patrick in filming a PSA in support of You Can Play.
“The hockey community united behind Brendan because he loved the game, and that’s what matters. The NHL players stepping forward to support You Can Play know that creating a homophobia-free environment will make their teams – and the sport – better,” Patrick Burke continued. “It’s important for straight athletes at all levels to step up and let gay athletes know they will be accepted, and to let other straight athletes know that homophobic language and attitudes are never appropriate. This project is a combined effort of gay and straight athletes and fans, but the message is largely for straight audiences.”
Said Brian Burke, general manager of the Maple Leafs, “The Burke family is very proud to carry on Brendan’s legacy by working to ensure that LGBT athletes, coaches and fans around the world are treated with respect by the sports world. The You Can Play project will serve as a tremendous resource for the sports community by providing them with the tools needed to create safe arenas. I continue to be incredibly grateful to the NHL community for rallying around our cause and standing up for equality, and I look forward to seeing other leagues do the same. It has become abundantly clear to me that NHL players, coaches and management agree completely with our ideals: talent matters, sexual orientation does not. If you can play, You Can Play.”
2011 Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner Andy Miele, who was a friend of Brendan Burke’s while at Miami University and now plays in the Phoenix Coyotes organization, has stepped forward to talk about the importance of You Can Play. “The reason why I wanted to be a part of You Can Play is pretty obvious. I had a relationship with Brendan, and if he was still here he would want to promote this more than anyone else,” said Miele. “I felt privileged when Patrick came to me and asked me to be a part of it and I look forward to investing this into players all over the world to make the sports world safe for gay athletes.”
While more than 30 NHL players have already volunteered to support the program, You Can Play will extend beyond hockey, encompassing all sports, athletes and fans. The organization is in active discussions with officials and players in several other sports leagues.
“Casual homophobia doesn’t belong in any sports setting, whether in the locker room or in the stands. You Can Play will help to change the behavior and acceptance of fans,” according to co-founder Brian Kitts, who has spent more than ten years in the front offices of professional hockey, basketball, lacrosse and soccer teams. “Most fans care about exciting games, great performances and wins, not whether a player is gay or straight. Fans need to send the message to other fans that sexual orientation just doesn’t matter.”
Glenn Witman, the third co-founder of You Can Play, is a former hockey player at Hobart College and founder of GForce Sports, an elite gay hockey team and advocacy program. “Any player, gay or straight, knows how homophobic locker rooms can be,” Witman said. “Coaches and teams don’t get the best performance when a member of the team is forced to keep any secret or when any player feels shut out. You Can Play shows coaches, team captains and players how important it is to focus on skills and work ethic, not personal differences.”
You Can Play will launch with a series of videos from professional athletes but will quickly begin adding user-generated content. The organization welcomes video content from pro teams, university teams and athletes, club athletes and sports fans who value skill and healthy competition first. Over the next year, You Can Play will provide educational materials, workbooks, online coaching and other high school- and college-based programs aimed at letting coaches and players discuss sexual orientation.
“Familiarity and understanding is the best way to promote acceptance,” Witman said. “Athletes who work with us know that hurting your friends and teammates doesn’t get a win.”
The You Can Play website is augmented by a full suite of social media properties. Extensive outreach will be conducted on Facebook, Twitter (@YouCanPlayTeam) and YouTube (YouCanPlayProject) to grow the You Can Play community and further promote the organization’s goals and positive messages.
NBC Sports and HBO have joined the launch effort to support the creation and release of the PSA featuring NHL players. Initial funding for You Can Play was provided by the Gill Foundation, the Palette Fund and the Colin Higgins Foundation.