March, 2013 / Author:

In this first part of the series, we explore the global movement against homophobia in sports

Many supposed barriers fall as social attitudes become more progressive and accepting, but one of the last icy, fear-founded outposts of discrimination is the world of sports.

Locker rooms should be safe and sports venues should be free from homophobia. Athletes should be judged on talent, heart and work ethic, not sexual orientation. And though the GLBT community has made a lot of progress over the years, professional sport still remains a bastion of institutionalized homophobia.

In the last couple of years some athletes have come out publicly. Often, these sports heroes have come out once safely retired; however, Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, British cricketer Steven Davies, president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns NBA team Rick Welts, and ESPN morning sports personality Jared Max all came out in recent years while still active professionals. The Puerto Rican featherweight Orlando Cruz recently became the first active boxer to announce publicly that he is gay and a former Vancouver Whitecap soccer player came out publicly in 2011, making him the first North American professional soccer player to do so.

In Britain, no top flight footballer has come out since Justin Fashanu 22 years ago, but Manchester United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard has made a move in the right direction by writing passionately about the need for a gay hero. 

“As a footballer, I think first and foremost that a homosexual colleague is afraid of the reception he could get from the fans. My impression is that the players would not have a problem accepting a homosexual,” Lindegaard wrote on his blog. “Homosexuality in football is a taboo subject. The atmosphere on the pitch and in the stands is tough. The mechanisms are primitive and it is often expressed through a classic stereotype that a real man should be brave, strong and aggressive. And it is not the image that a football fan associates with a gay person.” 

The Federation of Gay Games provides opportunities for GLBT athletes to be active in sports in a safe environment, while engaging straight athletes in clubs or sports competitions. In numerical terms, that is 

perhaps more significant for many than finding an ‘out’ pro athlete.

But having big names coming out is nonetheless very important, because of the media hoopla such events can generate. Like it or not, it helps change people’s wider perceptions of what it means to have openly ‘out’ people in every walk of life. Having such major role models for young GLBT people is a priceless asset in the battle to kill shame and stifle internalized homophobia and self hate. 

How You Can Play is making a difference

Having admitted that so far, some progress has been made, when will it be safe for athletes in all sports and all leagues to come out and face the – hopefully – happy music?

Supporters of the You Can Play project hope that time will be soon. You Can Play is a group of leading athletes dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, regardless of sexual orientation. The project works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete and be judged only by their performance as an athlete. By enlisting high profile supporters, 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. 

You Can Play was born out of a tragedy. The project was started by Patrick Burke, a talent scout for the Philadelphia Flyers. Burke says he was totally sideswiped when his brother Brendan came out publically in 2009. He made Brendan swear on the Stanley Cup that it was not a joke and he really was gay. Finally convinced, Burke apologized to Brendan for ever having said or done anything to make him feel uncomfortable. It was then that Burke began thinking about the negativity gay people face in sports.

On Feb. 5, 2010, Brendan, only 21 at the time, died in a car accident. That was when Burke and his father Brian realized they needed to do something concrete to honour Brendan’s memory. The two men decided to advocate for the GLBT community in professional sports.

 With the help of Glenn Witman and Brian Kitts, co-founders of the gay advocacy group GForce Sports, Patrick Burke and his father gathered funding and wrote to every NHL team about what he wanted to do. And so, You Can Play was born.

“I just always think that I wish Brendan had had someone fighting for him when he was in high school,” Burke said. “I wish that Brendan had had gay role models in the sports world that he could reach out to, or that he could look at and say, ‘OK, this guy did it so I can too.’” 

General managers wrote back quickly and within 72 hours, the Burkes had a list of 35 NHL players willing to publicly endorse the idea of making sports welcoming to GLBT people. Support for You Can Play project by NHL players empowered NFL players—who can be very powerful straight allies—to speak out against homophobia. 

The support is out there

A recent ESPN poll of professional athletes found that 61.5 per cent and 92.3 per cent of NFL and NHL players, respectively, support gay marriage. The hope is that this multiplies and cascades in the homophobic sports world.

Burke regularly gives speeches at GLBT events, high schools, and anywhere else the project could make a difference. Hesaid a second wave of players is already committed to keeping the campaign going. Some professional athletes are speaking up as individuals and collectively as teams to support equality and criticize homophobia.

“I’ve had a positive response wherever I’ve gone,” Burke says. “The younger generation is very much on board with this. A Sports Illustrated survey a few years ago said 80 per cent of readers would be fine with supporting gay athletes.”

He said no major player has yet come out publicly, but it is well known in the business that some NHL players have boyfriends.

“The gay population at large is estimated between four and ten per cent, but even if you conservatively said it’s just one per cent, that means that statistically the NHL in any given year has at least seven to nine gay players and likely more,” Burke says. “There are about 750 players in the league, so you can do the math.”

But, Burke says, “it is still very difficult for a major player to publicly admit he’s gay even if some of his teammates know or suspect he is.” He says that people fear that coming out may damage the team spirit and stereotyped images of extreme masculinity, that are so central to the professional sports culture.

“It’s a very isolated culture,” Burke says. “Athletes tend to just hang out with other athletes. They practice with them and socialize with them as part of a team.” Gay athletes keep quiet strictly from fear that coming out will destroy their careers or career opportunities, so it will take a great deal of courage for a non-retired player to make that first leap.

“You may be playing alongside someone who is gay, but you have no idea who they are because of this,” Burke says. “By raising awareness through You Can Play, our aim is to make it a little easier for the time when professional players do decide to publicly come out. We can raise consciousness and make that trip a little easier by encouraging straight teammates to support them and let them know it’s OK to be gay. They will know there are sixty or seventy guys out there who support them and respect them as players and as people.”

Burke says attitudes are slowly changing in the sports world and the community at large. You Can Play has had strong support from educators, team managers and players, as well as funding offered by foundations and many private donors.

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the You Can Play project recently announced a partnership dedicated to ensuring equality for all of the CWHL’s athletes, coaches, staff, and fans.

“You Can Play will work with the CWHL to find new and creative ways to ensure that lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) athletes are ensured a safe environment, free from homophobic language and other forms of homophobia,” reads a You Can Play project press release.

In December, You Can Play announced a partnership with the America East conference. The conference office, along with student-athletes, coaches and administrators from all America East colleges and institutions will combine with You Can Play to help educate and change the culture and improve the treatment of GLBT athletes in the locker room and on the playing field. America East is the first 

Division One athletic conference to partner with project. 

“For LGBT athletes currently attending these schools, or who may be considering which school to attend in the future, today is truly a game-changer,” Burke wrote in a press release. “We will work hard to help America East create inclusive locker rooms through education, policy creation, and programs which will help shape the culture of athletics at each school.”

Progress is slow, but at least it is progress. Changing minds and attitudes sometimes takes decades, but the momentum in the sports world is finally building up.

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– Peter Carlyle-Gordge is a Winnipeg- based freelance writer, former producer for CBC radio and former MacLean’s writer.

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