Have you ever wanted to change the world? Have you ever seriously considered the impact that your life could one day have on a large group of people? Maybe, maybe not; I for one certainly can’t say I’ve put any serious thought into it beyond entertaining daydreams of influencing the world for the better etc. etc. etc. but never really considering how to go about doing it. Lucky for me, and all of us, there are people out there who do more than just dream.
Lucky for us, there are people who are brave enough to take a deep breath and say ‘Today I will change the world, one person, one fan, one player at a time.’ Lucky for us, there are people like Patrick Burke, Tommy Wingels, and Andy Miele just to name a few among many, who took a cue from a departed brother and friend, and set out to change the world, whether they were ready to or not.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Patrick Burke, one of the founders of the You Can Play Project, the son of Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, and brother of Brendan Burke, who tragically passed away in an accident in 2010, but not before leaving a long standing impression on the sports world…one that Patrick, with the help of over 40 NHL stars is now bringing to the forefront of the sports industry. If you read Part One of this series, you have already been introduced to the main goal of the You Can Play Project, to make locker rooms safe for everyone regardless of sexual orientation. Essentially the You Can Play Project can be viewed as an inside out – outside in movement to change the way fans and players think, talk, and act towards one another; an effort to end passive, and in some cases not so passive homophobic behaviors in the sports world.
In the few conversations I have had with Patrick Burke I have learned an immense amount about love, patience, fearlessness, and dedication. I wanted to share with you all as much of his spirit and exhaustion (don’t worry it’s good to be tired when you’re accomplishing great things) as possible and to hopefully allow you to get to know what the driving force behind You Can Play is. So without any more delay, I present to you my interview with Patrick Burke.
I started with the obvious question. How did You Can Play Project get started?
“The idea came from an outsports.com article that I was writing about Brendan and uh while I was writing it the line ‘if you can play you can play’ kind of stuck out to me as kind of a good motto to summarize what we stood for. So I wrote that and pulled it from the article and saved it for myself. Then I got hooked in with G Force Sports which is an all gay all star hockey team from Denver. Their president, Glenn Whitman emailed me and asked me to moderate a panel which they call their invisible athlete forums, in which gay athletes share their experiences, share what its like to grow up as a gay athlete. I moderated that and found it to really be an enjoyable and worthwhile experience so I kind of told them whether you like it or not you’re stuck with me now…eventually I pitched them the idea of the You Can Play Project…fortunately for Glenn and Brian (Kitts) thought it was a good idea and thought we could handle it and decided to run with it.”
I felt inclined to ask was what kind of fears or apprehensions Patrick had with taking on a project of this magnitude, I mean, can you imagine taking on ingrained behaviors and set ways of thinking in an environment known for being typically misogynistic? I surely think It would be intimidating. Patrick on the other hand said this,
“I mean there’s always the fear of what if this goes wrong, what if nobody supports it, what if nobody likes it, but I was confident in the Hockey community, I had faith that the Hockey community would step up and support us like they always do.”
How do you even get a project like YCP off the ground? Well, the simple answer is, with a little help from your friends. When Brendan was killed in an accident in 2010, he left behind many loving friends and a family willing to do whatever they had to in order to preserve his legacy and continue to raise awareness for LGBT athletes everywhere as he had done. Two of those friends were San Jose Shark Tommy Wingels (now nominated for the Masterson Memorial Trophy for his work with YCP) and Phoenix Coyote Andy Miele. While still on entry level contracts both players wrote the first two checks which would lay the foundation financially for YCP and get the project off the ground. Burke commented,
“They came in from the start and were two of the first people to join our board. Ever since Brendan’s accident the two of them have been relentless in making sure that they are involved and trying to help our family however they can; that they can carry on Brendan’s message.”
“They are on the advisory board, they wrote the checks, their role on the advisory board now in addition to doing the PSA’s (which Tommy has done and released and we’re working on someone to film Andy), is continuing to recruit players which they are, continuing to speak out and raise awareness, which they are, and providing us with guidance and expertise from a players perspective. You know we want to do this with practical information from the sports world, we don’t want to be some group that’s lost touch with athletes and that isn’t reaching them. They help us make sure we are reaching athletes with what speaks to them.”
That last comment is something I feel is incredibly vital to this project. It is no secret that the hockey community is constantly evolving and changing. Fans see it every day as they watch their favorite enforcers phased out, rule changes put in place, and systems morphing into new styles of play never seen before. Much like what is seen in the game, what happens behind the scenes is a constantly changing environment as well, and what may have been relevant to players just a few short years ago may not be now. It is vital that current players such as Wingels and Miele participate in You Can Play if they expect to reach players (and fans) en masse.
Burke really drove that sentiment home to me, saying,
“A lot of the information that is given out to athletes comes out from academics or ex experts in LGBT culture and there’s not usually a lot of crossover there with athletes and what Tommy and Andy have done by immersing themselves in this issue is given us a really valuable sounding board for “hey, if we approach a a player and ask him to do this… what do you think?” and Tommy can say to me “Well I wouldn’t do it like that I’d do it like this.” or “That’s a great idea I’d definitely be on board.” so they are really invaluable in terms of that perspective.”
So what is the short-term goal of You Can Play? According to Burke,
“The short term goal is raising awareness that this is an issue that needs to be addressed and we really want straight athletes that they can and should stand up for this. For too long straight allies have been conditioned to think that they aren’t supposed to stand up and that they would be in the minority if they stood up and spoke out in favor of gay athletes and we need to change that attitude and let them know that not only is it important for them to speak out but that they are actually in the majority when they do speak out and that they are just being leaders for the rest of the straight athletes who want to stand up.”
And the long-term?
“In the long term we’re going to have our play book which will be practical advice for the sports world on how to deal with these issues and how to make safe locker rooms and that will be coming sometime in the fall…it’ll be a group effort by our advisory board.”
I wanted to gain some more insight into the player involvement with YCP and Burke responded with something that speaks very clearly, that players want to, and are supporting this project.
“We knew going into it that there would be some support, but the amount of time and effort the players are putting into this, the amount of players who have reached out to us and gone out of their way to assist us, the honesty and candid nature of the interviews that the players are giving without any prompting from us, it’s been a little overwhelming and very touching to see.”
While Burke has yet to meet any truly negative road blocks yet or challenges, he says,
“I’m tired, I know that…but there’s never been discouragement. Going into it there was a little bit of apprehension….but we were committed to the idea, committed to the message and in my head it’s always been ‘If Brendan could do this, so I should be able to do this too.’”
At this time approximately 40 NHL players have signed on to do PSA’s and the number continues to grow. Expect to see You Can Play Spread through the sports world, beyond the many Hockey dressing rooms it has already taken root in. You Can Play has the potential to change the sports industry and open up a whole new, safer, more accepting environment for all athletes. Patrick Burke, Tommy Wingels, and the rest of the board of the You Can Play Project have made their message very clear, and I will echo it, “If you can play, you can play.”
**Editors Note: Part Three of this series will address in depth ways in which you as Fans and players in some cases can get involved with You Can Play, as well as further commentary from Patrick Burke, additional players from two leagues outside of the NHL, and an interview with someone very near and dear to all of us who bleed teal. To find out who these amazing players are stay tuned for Part Three which will hit the site as soon as all of the interviews have concluded.**
**Personally I have to thank some amazing local Sharks fans for making a PSA for YCP already which states “If you can cheer, you can cheer. If you can play, you can play.” Obviously in San Jose the awareness for You Can Play has already started to take hold due to the fact that the young Wingels is a Shark logo wearing member of Team Teal, but now the challenge will be spreading YCP throughout not just the NHL, but every sport and every locker room. “Every age, every player, every locker room.”** FOR MORE INFORMATION ON HOW YOU CAN HELP PLEASE VISIT WWW.YOUCANPLAYPROJECT.ORG AND FOLLOW @YOUCANPLAYTEAMON TWITTER!
Blades of Teal ~ The Final Word on Sharks Hockey.