You Can Play

Thanks for Gloria Nieto for sharing her recent, in-depth conversation with Patrick Burke, scout for the Flyers and one of the co-founders of You Can Play. Burke speaks candidly about the project’s origins, the two months since launch and their plans going forward.

GN: Patrick are you considered the founder?

PB: There are three of us who are co-founders. Myself, Glenn Witman who is the president and founder of GForce which is an all gay hockey team in Denver, and Brian Kitts who is a long time sports marketing professional and professor in the Denver area.

GN: Interesting, I never would have thought you would have so much based in Denver.

PB: Well I don’t know if you want the whole back story.

GN: Absolutely, I want it all.

PB: In the wake of losing my brother, I was looking for ways to get involved with something like this.  I had no idea about anything having to do with gay rights. I had no idea who to talk to.  Glenn actually reached out to me to have me moderate an “Invisible Athlete’s Forum” which is a panel discussion that we do in which gay athletes share their stories and experiences growing up as a gay athlete. We have done several of them now with coaches, players with teams and they are great.

He asked me to moderate one in Denver. So I went out to Denver and thought it was just amazing, the outreach that they do, the forums were something I really wanted to be a part of. So after doing it, I kind of pulled Glenn aside and basically, whether you guys like it or not, you guys are stuck with me because we are about to start doing some work together. I did a few more of the “Invisible Athlete” forums and continue to do those. I had an idea for something bigger.  I had the model with “You Can Play” in my head since I wrote it as an article.  I had it in my head and wanted to use it for something. 

Glenn brought in Brian who was, at the time, a professor of sports marketing at Denver University.  The three of us talked about a few different ways to do it or whether we should give it to another major gay rights group or if it was something to try other ways to handle.  Eventually we said screw it, we’ll do it ourselves.

GN: How long ago was that?

It was almost a year ago to the day to be honest with you. The first time we had the discussion when we said basically screw it let’s do it ourselves was right around April 30 of last year. We presented at the American Association of Hockey Coaches convention in Naples, Florida.  That day in the hotel we were talking about it. We had talked about giving it to different groups whether it was GLAAD or GLSEN or HRC or something like that. It was right around April 30 when we said let’s see if we can do it ourselves.

GN: You have to be thrilled with the amount of positive response you have gotten from this so far. Amazing videos, big names getting behind this right away, obviously you have spent some time getting ready for this roll out.  Also it helps having your last name and having your credentials in the NHL so I am just wondering, did you approach guys individually? Did you have a team that did outreach?

PB: The original way we did it, we set up an advisory board.  The first two NHL guys we talked to were Tommy Wingels of San Jose and Andy Miele of Phoenix who were both at Miami University when Brendan was there.

You Can Play PSA airing in the NHL Store

Both had reached out to our family in the past saying I want to do something, please find a way to get me involved. We reached out to the two of them and they hopped on board immediately, which was great.   Then we spoke with the NHL office to get permission to speak to the various teams. Then we sent an email out through my father to the other 29 NHL general managers letting them know what we were doing.  The basis of the project, we were what we stood for and asking players to participate in the project.

Like you said, having the name of Burke is helpful. The players knew we were on their side. We weren’t going to put them in positions where they might be uncomfortable or get asked questions that they weren’t fully educated about.  They knew we would take care of them.  That was something they believed in so we started getting responses from players within about 48 hours. Players were committing to appear in the video.

GN: Can I just say, holy shit?!

PB: Pretty cool right?  Pretty nerve wracking! When we sent out the email I was going to law school and in finals. So when I wasn’t living in the library I was at the rink. I was sitting in the library and was cc’d on all the emails.  So I was seeing all the emails go out, one at a time, Dear Bob to Bob Murray in Anaheim and Dear Steve to Steve Yzerman in Tampa Bay.  I was thinking if this doesn’t work I am screwed. 

They all went out. Then I remember I was sitting in the library doing some work and we got the first email back from a player saying absolutely, it is something I want to do just tell me what to do and when. It was a pretty emotional moment. It was great!

GN: I have noticed recently on Twitter that you are linking to It Gets Better. You are making more of a connection with folks who have done It Gets Better  videos. You have collegiate teams who are signing on and making videos.  Oh and by the way, thanks for putting our Sharks video up on the web page.

PB: I thought it was great.

GN: (bragging a little) That was my idea.  Emily Hall and I were shooting the bull one night and I said ‘Well let’s make a movie!’ So over the course of two games, we were down there, she had written the script, I did the fine tuning on the script, she did all the tech part and the next thing you know she is sending it out so thank you!

PB: I loved the guy who was wearing the shirt that said “I only look illegal.” That cracked me up.

GN: I thought that was perfect. That was me in the Sharks jersey with Jumbo in back of me on the tv.

PB: I had assumed you were in it.

GN: So anyway back to my questions, do you have It Gets Better folks approaching you and wanting to jump on the bandwagon? Are you making some concerted efforts to reach out to other projects who are working along the same lines?

PB: We have heard from other groups, not specifically It Gets Better.  We are very careful to narrowly tailor our mission.  We only do sports. We don’t do anything else for numerous reasons. So for that reason there have been groups that have reached out to us and we work with and provide information. But we will not join an official partnership because their groups are so much more all encompassing than what ours is.

Burke doing CBC-TV interview on the You Can Play launch day, March 4

We find when we deal with athletes, whether there are supportive of the whole package of gay rights, marriage equality, workplace equality, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell which I know has been repealed, those type of things. Many, many athletes are supportive of that but they don’t want to deal with it.  For lack of better terms, they don’t want to be in a locker room after a game and have someone stick a microphone in their face and say  “What do you think about the latest gay marriage proposal?” For the same reason they don’t usually speak out on any political or moral issue.  It’s just not something that athletes generally do. There are exceptions, of course.

We find that by narrowly tailoring our mission statement, what we ask athletes to say and support, we find that athletes are far more willing to step up and join us. All we ever ask for an athlete to say they he or she would support a gay teammate. That he or she would treat their teammates with respect and dignity.  If they want to get involved more beyond than that then we are happy to direct them to the proper groups who are doing that work.

GN: What you are saying makes total sense in terms of, like you said, having someone put a microphone in their face and asking them a question.  I think this is why Tim Thomas generated so much controversy so quickly. In my mind that was just something that you just don’t see.

PB: The athletes, for lots of reasons, are very wary of speaking out on any political issues most of the time. You see when athletes do speak up, for whatever side it is, whether it is a very liberal position or very conservative position what happens,  whether it is Steve Nash speaking up for  gay marriage or Tim Thomas saying I am not going to the White House because I don’t believe in President Obama’s policies.  You see whatever side they are on, they get a heavy amount of criticism that distracts them from their job.  We think of this as a sport but for them it’s their career. For the most part, whatever their point of view, they don’t want to get involved. Again, I am speaking generally because there are hundreds of examples of athletes who want to get involved.

We set out from the beginning we believe there are hundreds of groups who do wonderful work for gay equality, for LGBT equality in all different arenas of life and society. We decided right from the start that we were going to be sports only and safe locker rooms only. We have had some criticism from people who think we are not being aggressive enough. But we think it is the most productive way to reach out and get the players involved.

GN: So to me, granted I have never been in a men’s locker room, either pre or post game even though my training is as a sport journalist. But back in those days women did not go into the locker room. So it is left to my imagination what goes on in there.  But in women’s locker rooms, from my experience in women’s locker rooms, hockey locker rooms, nobody batted an eye about changing in a room with lesbians.  Right? We are putting our gear on and just chit chatting about whatever.  So my experience is not that homophobia is an issue in women’s locker rooms.  Do you have a different perception of that?

PB: From the female athletes we have talked to while getting this project going and having people reaching out to us, if you asked most male athletes to rate the homophobia in their locker room, I think you would hear them say a five to seven with most of being what we call casual homophobia, the use of homophobic slurs. If you asked most female athletes to rate the level of homophobia in their locker rooms, you either get a zero or a ten. So we talk to female athletes when we do outreach to colleges, and hear from sports teams, from the women’s sports teams and they say we have five lesbians on our team and it is not an issue at all. 

And you go, well that’s great. But we talk to other sports teams and they go our locker room is horrifying.  Now I hate to sound sexist and generalizing but women get mean and vicious. And you talk to lesbian athletes who are afraid to come out and they are talking about horrifying situations where they are being bullied into staying in the closet by their straight teammates. Where as in the guy’s locker room it will be more like “oh don’t be gay” and that kind of language.  But in women’s locker rooms they can get really bad. 

So it is interesting to see the different dynamics between the men’s and women’s sports whether it is a zero or a ten in the women’s locker room and I talk to coaches a lot and they can say “We have no problem. We have had lesbian athletes come through her for years and never had a problem.” Then you talk to other coaches and they say “Our locker room is out of control, we need help. We don’t know what to do.”

GN: I am thinking of a college situation. The women’s basketball coach at Penn State made homophobic remarks to her team.  I am sure they have a non-discrimination policy there and she got fired. Penn State was sued and they lost because of this coach. There are also issues of college recruiters trying to sway recruits against going to a rival college by suggesting that there are lesbians at that rival school so they shouldn’t go there.

PB: We have heard that there is a school in Idaho, where the women’s basketball coach was being negatively recruited against. We have also heard similar things in men’s sports, where some coaches have said “Oh they welcome gay players there. You don’t want to go there.”  In my mind, any coach that has to resort to that, they are so clearly out of their element, so clearly incompetent that they probably should not be working with anyone. 

GN: It doesn’t say much about the quality of their program if that is what they have to resort to.

PB: On the Flyers, we never say, “Don’t go to this other team, they’re terrible.”  We sit down and talk about the strengths of our program are, what the Philadelphia Flyers can do for you.  And that’s it. If the player wants to come, that’s great.  We would never say don’t go to New York, they are such an awful franchise. Obviously that isn’t true but we wouldn’t say it. We’re confident enough in what we do.

If there are college coaches out there that have to resort to that, well, if I was a player and heard that, I’d just walk out.  Not because not only it is horribly offensive but that is one coach admitting to a player, I can’t beat that coach. Straight up.

GN: So then I am wondering, one of your players was involved in a controversy at the beginning of the season, Wayne Simmonds, saying something to Sean Avery.  The league didn’t respond.

PB: The league did respond. This is what gets lost.  It got lost in the white noise that came out afterwards.  I have talked with numerous people about this. The league issued a statement, unequivocally, that from this point forward, any homophobic slurs would be considered the same as racists slurs. Players will then be punished accordingly.

The only reason that Wayne Simmonds did not get punished is because no one on the ice could or would confirm what he said.  The NHL has a long standing policy against lip reading. The league has a long standing policy that the only way to suspend someone for something said on the ice, is if an official can confirm that the words were used. The linesmen who were holding Wayne, the referees who were standing right there, no one could confirm what he said.  The NHL issued, this year, a very strongly worded statement, stating that, putting everyone else on notice, that going forward, this *&%$ won’t fly.  If players are going to use those words, they are going to get suspended.

GN: Well thanks for correcting me on that.  I didn’t catch that. I do my best to pay attention to all the little details, and I sure didn’t catch this.

PB: Well for obvious reasons I was intimately involved in the whole process.  I certainly got a lot of grief when I had people say “Oh well you are such an advocate for gay rights meanwhile you’ve got a player on your own team who did this. I have to explain it to them over and over. If any official on the ice had said Wayne Simmonds, if anyone could confirm that Wayne Simmonds used the word faggot towards Sean Avery, he would have been suspended.

GN: Well Avery is not exactly a sympathetic character to try and rally behind. But thank you for that clarification.

PB: There was a great statement by Colin Campbell, the vice president of the NHL.

[Campbell’s statement] “We have looked into the allegations relating to the possible use of a homophobic slur by a Flyers player in the Rangers/Flyers preseason game last night in Philadelphia. Since there are conflicting accounts of what transpired on the ice, we have been unable to substantiate with the necessary degree of certainty what was said and by whom.  To the extent we become aware of additional information conclusively establishing that an inappropriate slur was invoked, we are reserving the option to revisit the matter.”

All players, coaches and officials in the National Hockey League deserve the respect of their peers, and have the absolute right to function in a work environment that is free from racially or sexually-based innuendo or derision.” This is the National Hockey League’s policy and it will remain so going forward.

It also is important to emphasize that the National Hockey League holds, and will continue to hold, our players to higher standards with respect to their conduct both on and off the ice. While we recognize that the emotion involved in certain on-ice confrontations may lead to the use of highly charged and sometimes offensive language and commentary, certain lines cannot be crossed.

We have for many years emphasized to our clubs and players that commentary directed at the race or ethnicity of other participants in the game (or even non-participants), or that is otherwise socially or morally inappropriate or potentially hurtful — including as it may relate to sexual orientation — is absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

My father released a statement that “Colie” (Colin Campbell) did a great job articulating exactly what the punishment would be, that the NHL wouldn’t tolerate such a thing. Going forward, all our players are on notice about this.

GN: You are right, this got lost in the white noise.

PB: That’s what happened. People were justifiably outraged by the use of the term.  Then when the NHL announced that Wayne would not be suspended, everyone freaked out without reading, ok, here’s why he is not being suspended.  Everyone kind of said, how dare they not suspend somebody?  They didn’t really look in to the reasons for why we can’t suspend him.

But now, going forward, the official rule of the NHL is that homophobic slurs are a punishable offense. And this goes back to the casual homophobia. Those words are used. We know those words are used. If those words weren’t used, we wouldn’t have had to launch. We wouldn’t have needed to do the You Can Play stuff. For a long time, and it shouldn’t have been, it was an accepted part of the culture. Then to one day come out and start suspending guys for it, instead of putting everyone on notice?

GN: And doing some education, too.

PB: I don’t want to say it was unfair but it would be like two players got into a fight one day and they both got suspended.  Then the NHL said we suspend guys for fights now. And the response would be, well, wait what? Now everyone is on notice.  Now I think our players know why they can’t and shouldn’t use those words.  I think incidents like that will be few and far between.

GN: As an example the NHL had Shanahan go around and show videos of hits to all the teams and what is allowed and not allowed.  Everyone knew what to expect.

PB: Exactly. So the league has done that now and our guys know.

GN: So let’s look to the future. Say in five years, an NHL player decides he wants to live his life openly on the ice and off. You will have been instrumental in making that happen. So ultimately would that be one of your goals? Would that be fair to say?

PB: Well first of all, I don’t think it is going to take five years. I think we are much closer than that. Our organizational goal is that all players, at all levels, feel safe coming out. So our goal is that National Hockey League players feel safe to come out. College players feel safe to come out.  Beer league players feel safe to come out.  High school players feel safe to come out. 

Yeah one of our goals is to get where professional hockey players and all other sports, professional athletes, are able and willing to come out and be safe and feel secure. But we are certainly not limited to professional sports. We would like to see a culture shift in sports, at all levels. When having a gay athlete is no longer a story, that’s what we want.

GN: I can tell you from being in the Tank when Tommy’s PSA is being shown the place gets dead silent.  People are watching it.  There is no uproar over why this is being shown or any outrage.  Fans are taken aback but they are listening and watching.

PB: We have gotten some nice stories about ovations in different cities. It’s not something that historically has been part of going to a game.  I’m not at all surprised when fans are a little confused with what’s going on here. To see a player like Tommy stepping up and act in this role is awesome.  As the players take leadership roles, the fans will follow. The younger ones will follow. 

I know from watching them for years that if they are not already, Shark fans will fall in love with Tommy. Having him on board is great for us. He is a great kid, we are lucky to have him on board.

Gloria and Tommy

San Jose fans should also know that other Sharks players have spoken with Tommy about this. They are very supportive. Going forward, Sharks fans can look forward to seeing more players than Tommy come forward. From the sound of it, we might have four or five guys doing PSA’s for us. So for Sharks fans, you will see Tommy but you can look forward to seeing more guys.  He is actively recruiting behind the scenes.

The more we go forward the more we hear from different athletes.  You don’t want to say guys you wouldn’t expect but, you know, with some guys they would be a pipe dream, there’s no way they would ever do it. Guys like that are reaching out to us.  Guys reaching out on Twitter saying how do I get involved? How do I do a video? It’s pretty cool seeing so many guys in the National Hockey League rally around us and have such strong support.

GN: It gives me a lot of hope. Personally, I have been through a lot as an activist. Hockey is what keeps me going. So I want to thank you for what you are doing, it is going to have such an impact on so many people’s lives. Not everyone can do this and have such a big impact in so many different ways.  It is a testimony to you but it is also a testimony to your brother.  Sometimes simple bravery is about being able to put your feet on the floor in the morning. And tell the truth. I hope there are ways that fans can be helpful.

PB: As we get more of our plans together, get a little more grounded with what we are going to do, I am sure there will be ways for you and other fans to be involved.

We got plans going in to the summer.  The web site itself will have the capability of fans being able to upload their own videos. That we think will get more fans involved in that way. Looks like there are going to be regional fund raisers. There is going to be one in LA for sure. As we get in to the fall, looks like we will have our play book, our resource guide for coaches and athletes, schools and fans. We will certainly be mobilizing our friends and allies to get those out to their schools and teachers plus fellow fans and athletes.

GN: I have to compliment you on your knowledge of even the right terminology, saying marriage equality, terms like that.

PB: It took a lot of work, reading a lot of studies, religious articles, educating myself.  I didn’t want to go out and insult the LGBT community by not knowing what you are dealing with. There are a couple, but not too many groups that have their foot in both camps, sports and LGBT equality.

GN: I like the fact that there is not a bunch of in fighting about this. You are being focused and effective.  Changing the culture is not an easy undertaking.  But I can already see the difference.

PB: We do not do turf wars with anyone.  If there are other groups who do something better than we do then we are happy to step back and play our role. We are not going to fight for resources, we are not going to step on anyone’s toes. If there are things they do better, we are happy to sit on the sideline and watch.  We do not do turf wars.

GN: Well the funny thing to me is that we are all athletes. We are competitive.  Of course we want to do the best we can and we want to win.

PB: Well the thing about me was that I was a lousy athlete.  I had a good work ethic and leadership but when it came game time I was there to sit on the bench and make people laugh.  Now if someone is doing something better than us, I will be happy to sit in the back and make people laugh.

GN: This project, I think, will have a profound effect on all of us. Please let us know ways we can support You Can Play! Thank you so much for all your time!

–You can follow Gloria on twitter and read her work in  Frontiers Magazine and San Francisco Gate

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