At some point in our lives, all of us have been inspired to go out and change the world. As co-founder of You Can Play, a project launched in the spring of 2012 that’s dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes without regard to sexual orientation, Patrick Burke has done just that, and on a scale much larger than he likely anticipated.
A Canton, Mass., native and the son of former Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke (Providence, R.I.), Patrick’s inspiration came in the wake of tragedy, as his brother Brendan — the video coordinator and student manager for Miami-Ohio’s hockey team — was killed in a car crash in 2010. The 21-year-old’s death came just months after he came out to his family and subsequently the world in a story by ESPN’s John Buccigross, putting him in the national spotlight as an advocate for gay rights.
Now, after a year and a half as the face of an organization that’s made huge strides toward stomping out homophobia in sports, Patrick is stepping back behind the curtain. In August, the former Philadelphia Flyers scout announced that ex-NFL player Wade Davis — who came out after retiring — would be taking over as executive director of You Can Play.
“I think, for too long, we’ve had a straight voice kind of dominating the conversation,” Burke said. “I think that there’s something to be said for empowering a gay, black, former NFL player who can connect with people in ways that I can’t.”
Burke left the Flyers in August to join NHL Department of Player Safety mentor Brendan Shanahan in the newly created position of director of player safety.
We caught up with Patrick — who will remain heavily involved behind the scenes — to discuss all that You Can Play has accomplished thus far, and got his take on the controversy surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, as many fear Russia’s new anti-gay laws may put LGBT athletes and those who support them in danger.
Burke: It was certainly a nerve-wracking day for all of us. I was in New York and spent the morning doing media, then went to the Bruins-Rangers game where it debuted. At that point we had the support of the league, the teams, and numerous players. It was all about gauging how the fans would respond to it. Thankfully there was an overwhelmingly positive response.
Burke: I think it definitely did in terms of how quickly it became a real part of the conversation in the NHL. We anticipated a good response, and anticipated that people would like us, but I don’t think we knew how quickly we would be seen as an integral part of the game. Players know us and reference us, fans talk about us, management calls on us. We were almost immediately a part of the hockey culture.
Burke: It’s huge. First of all, to have an official position from both the NHL and the NHLPA that gay players and fans are welcome is amazing. The ability to provide resources and information directly to players is ground-breaking in how aggressively smart it is.
Burke: Yes, we will be involved with educating prospects and currently players through resources and through the rookie symposium.
Burke: I think it’s really helped change the tone of conversation. There was a decent amount of casual homophobia that we’d have to hear over the years, and that’s definitely slowed to almost nothing. The last time a scout said something homophobic in front of me, he called me a day later to personally apologize and swore he’d never do something like that again. Guys are starting to recognize that it’s not OK, and even correct other guys for their missteps.
Burke: No. We think our mission is fully served by participating in the Olympics and drawing as much attention as possible to the horrific crimes going on in Russia right now. Every LGBT sports figure we’ve spoken to agrees. And the Russian LGBT community wants the Olympics to continue. Not to mention the fact that a boycott was never considered as a possible option by any Olympic governing body or the U.S. government. So, no. We didn’t wrestle with it, because the boycott idea is a failure on every level.
Burke: No. We cannot and have not ruled out those concerns.
Burke: That is more of a concern to us than the government acting, but both are possibilities. We consider both possibilities to be remote, but it is a non-zero threat.
Burke: We would respond appropriately to whatever situation arose.
Burke: I hope that Brendan would have been proud of us. I genuinely believe that he would be, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think an hour goes by on any given day where I don’t think about him and miss him terribly. You Can Play has been an outlet for my grief, but nothing takes that feeling of loss away. I try to remember that this is something Brendan would have loved to see when he was 16, and that we are helping the next generation of gay athletes feel safer. I wish someone had done something like this when Brendan was in high school.
To learn more about You Can Play, go to www.youcanplayproject.org.