Acceptance and tolerance, two terms that are at the center of some of the more contentious political debates of our times. Over the past century our society has grown tremendously in these areas, with women and minorities fighting for equal rights along with constant other social and civil battles. The past thirty years has seen the rise of a new civil rights movement as the gay community fights for the same equal rights the rest of society receives, receiving the same levels of vehement opposition even if there are some who don't feel it's the same.
Professional sports in America have always been at the forefront of these battles. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947 while Willie O'Ree accomplished the same feat in the NHL when he made his debut with the Boston Bruins in 1958. Like Robinson and O'Ree, we await the next step in professional sports when the first openly gay player steps onto the field or the ice for his team with little fear of recourse of harassment.
The NHL has been at the forefront of the acceptance of gay players in pro sports, with Brian Burke's son Brendan Burke came out in December of 2009. Brendan, a former hockey player for Miami University, made this decision in response to an article by Justin Bourne on the need to cut down on gay slurs in the locker room in hockey. His tragic death a year later sent shockwaves through the hockey community but his message remains clear and strong.
Brendan's older brother, Patrick, is fighting to change the "macho" culture in hockey and lead to the acceptance of an openly gay player not just in hockey but in any and all sports. Find out more after the jump.
The You Can Play Project is centered around one very specific belief: "If you can play, then you can play." Their mission is to end discrimination and slurs so that players don't have to live with secrets, so that they can be free to be open about who they are without fear of harassment.
It's time to talk about sports and it's time for us to create change. It's one of the last bastions of society where discrimination and slurs are tolerated. It doesn't have to be this way. There's an assumption in sports that gay and lesbian players are shunned by all athletes. It's just not true and You Can Play is dedicated to providing positive messages from athletes, coaches and fans. The biggest names in sports, the smallest high school teams, and the most casual fans are coming forward to let athletes and fans alike know that LGBT players are welcome on their teams, in their locker rooms and in the stands. If you have skill, if you have work ethic, if you can skate, pass, shoot, run, jump, hit, row or play - then you can play.
NHL Players are involved in this movement as well, with a commercial featuring Rick Nash, Duncan Keith, Brian Boyle, Matt Moulson, Joffrey Lupul, Claude Giroux, Daniel Alfredsson, Scott Hartnell, Corey Perry, Andy Greene, Dion Phaneuf and Henrik Lundqvist all taking a stand against discrimination in the NHL and in hockey. You can see this commercial at the end of this article but one thing is very clear -- there are many players in the NHL who are passionate about changing the culture in hockey.
Patrick Burke, who is also a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, is approaching this campaign extremely aggressively as he combats what he calls "casual homophobia" in hockey.
"Those guys are using homophobic slurs but not meaning them in a homophobic sense. You see a guy say 'don't be gay' and he's not saying 'don't be a homosexual,' he's saying 'don't be an ass,'" said Burke, the son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers.
"We're all about makin' fun of each other. I understand how guys bond. But we need to cut out that language so those athletes that are hiding can feel safe."
It might seem too "politically correct" for some but the painful truth is that these seemingly innocuous jokes have a lasting effect on the players that are in those locker rooms hiding their secret, afraid to be their true selves for fear of a lack of acceptance by those around them.
This isn't just about saying a player should be "openly gay" in the locker room, it's also about self-acceptance and being proud of who you are. A player who is hiding their true self from those they are closest to will fight with accepting who they are as individuals, leading to depression and anger towards themselves, others and society. In a world where we talk about equal rights for all and the acceptance of those around us, it's appalling we are still in a place where we are afraid to accept someone just because they have internal feelings different than our own.
Brendan Burke was a brave soul for coming out so publicly and his father, Brian, for openly accepting him and loving him the way he did. Their family's story is one that we should all attempt to emulate with those in our lives, where love should come before everything else even if we don't quite understand their personal feelings and desires.
For me, the hope is that campaigns such as You Can Play and those of the players we see in this commercial lead to the first openly gay athlete to come out and be accepted by his teammates and his fans. The NHL and hockey is leading the charge in this fight and hopefully, with public acceptance of a popular athlete, we can begin to move further forward as a society in our acceptance of those around us who might be hiding a secret of their own.