You Can Play – A Busch League Sports Tribute
Here at Busch League Sports we value one thing: Merit. At times, our aggressive and sometimes controversial viewpoints may be considered “off-color” but we pride ourselves on exhibiting fair and objective viewpoints no matter the scenario. We’ve sort of anointed ourselves a source of unbiased truth in an ever-growing sporting world filled with lies, deceit, cheating, crooked owners and lately…openly gay athletes.
Because fairness, equality and goodwill are some of our pillars, we wanted to take a deep dive into why, after more than a century of major professional sports, we are witnessing a subtle cultural shift where major league athletes feel comfortable enough to be openly gay. We certainly have no delusions that the world is all of a sudden a wonderful place, devoid of racism, sexism, bigotry and homophobia. In fact, there isn’t any noticeable decline of hatred towards people of different race, creed, sexual orientation or otherwise. Hate crimes haven’t decreased by any discernible amount. So what’s at play here?
Before we proceed, here’s a little personal testimony. I’m guilty. Guilty of using the word “gay” to describe something I felt was lackluster, not up to par or incompetent. I’m guilty of laughing at 2 men showing affection toward one another. I’m guilty of not standing up for fellow human beings that might not share the same tastes that I have. The hard part to swallow is that I was raised in an educated household where judging someone based upon color, orientation or otherwise was absolutely forbidden. As I retrace the steps, I come to one conclusion. It was just easier to go with the crowd and chuckle at “Gay” jokes instead of standing up for what I was taught to do and treat all people with respect. Social pressure played a huge role in my ignorance early on and I’ve attempted to make good ever since.
The Williams Institute sites that anywhere from 1.7% to 5% of the American population is either bi-sexual or homosexual. A recent Gallup Poll released a survey that tried to estimate the percentage of LGBT Americans and arrived at 3.5% nationwide. If those numbers are accurate, this would mean there are 60 gay NFL players, 42 in Major League Baseball, 34 in the NHL, 26 in Major League Soccer and 16 in the NBA, based on current roster size, the total would equal 178 gay athletes across major professional sports in the United States. If these figures are accurate from a current roster perspective, then spanning the history of major professional sports there have been thousands of gay athletes. Why now, in 2013-14 have we witnessed announcements of 3 major athletes (Jason Collins NBA, Michael Sam NFL, Derrick Gordon NCAAB) openly stating their homosexuality while active in their respective sport? Of greater import, who or what supported them to comfortably transition into an openly gay lifestyle? We’ll attempt to answer this question later.
The sexuality of many notable gay athletes came to the forefront prior to Jason Collins in 2013. In tennis, superstars Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were openly gay for at least part of their respective careers. Both women remarked there were heavy monetary implications due to withdrawn sponsorships and such. Fortunately in tennis, one doesn’t report to a General Manager, Teammates, a Coach or a Team Owner, which obviously makes it easier to be oneself on and off the court.
In the NBA, John Amaechi announced his sexuality in 2007 after he was no longer an active player. Esera Tualao, a former defensive tackle in the NFL in the early 90’s “came out” in 2002 after he was done playing. He stated, “I don’t think the NFL is ready for an openly gay player.” Jerry Smith, a tight end who played for the Washington Redskins and caught 421 passes and 60 touchdowns in 13 seasons, was the first pro athlete to ever publicly be known as HIV positive and died of an AIDS-related illness in 1986. He never admitted to the public that he was gay, but NFL running back David Kopay referred to Smith as his first lover in his own autobiography.
Several WNBA and women’s soccer stars played their respective sports as openly gay athletes. Natasha Kai, Sheryl Swoopes, Meagan Rapinoe and Brittney Griner are just a few. But let’s get back to the original question. Why, for the first time in 2013 did we finally see a current, openly gay athlete come to the forefront in a major professional sport? The answer: We didn’t. A lesser-known and unbelievably sad story involves a Major League Baseball player named Glenn Burke.
Burke played parts of 4 major league seasons, spanning 1976-1979 for the Athletics and the Dodgers. An assistant coach with the Dodgers organization once stated that Burke was the next Willie Mays. Burke started in a World Series, was considered a rising star in baseball and had the world at his fingertips. This of course, was before the lack of acceptance and influx of degradation he experienced upon making his sexuality known to the masses. In fact, Tommy Lasorda, one of the darlings of Major League Baseball and the manager of the Dodgers during Burke’s time in LA, made life extremely difficult for Burke. You see, it is rumored that Glenn dated Tommy Lasorda Jr. and I suspect, as some pathetic “face saving” maneuver, the Dodgers offered Burke a bonus if he would agree to marry a woman and stop seeing Lasorda Jr.
The treatment Burke received from the Dodgers was only half of it. Billy Martin was the presiding manager of the Athletics during Burkes’ tenure in Oakland. Martin used the term “faggot” when referencing Burke and many of the Athletic players wouldn’t talk to Burke let alone look at him. He was black balled from the game. The treatment Burke received took its toll on the openly gay athlete as life after baseball would soon become his demise. Burke turned to drugs to fill the void in his life when baseball was over. Cocaine destroyed him physically and financially. He was arrested and jailed for drugs and lived on the streets of San Francisco for a number of years until his death in 1995. (For more on Glenn Burke and his trials as a gay man in major professional sports, be sure to watch Out, The Glenn Burke Story which was produced by Comcast Sports Net Bay Area and our pal, Sean Maddison.)
In the late 1970’s the world at large wasn’t ready for Glenn Burke and the once bright shining star fizzled to the prejudices and bigotry of the day. Our story has a happier ending and it comes in the form of a new organization that champions fairness and equality and serves as a guiding light for gay athletes, their teammates and sports fans everywhere.
Living in the Bay Area, I had heard about the You Can Play Project when I watched the public service announcement on CSN Bay Area during commercials of Warriors, Athletics, Giants, and Sharks games. Watch it here;
What I didn’t know is that “You Can Play” is a foundation whose focus is to create a positive environment for gay athletes in the locker room, on the field and in society. Their Mission Statement:
You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success. 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.
The You Can Play Project was founded by Patrick Burke. Patrick is son to Brian Burke, American-Canadian hockey executive who has served roles as President of Hockey Operations for the Calgary Flames, President and General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and General Manager for Team USA Hockey. Needless to say, Brian Burke is a consummate stalwart in the hockey world. I’ll attempt to illustrate the relevance of his background and how it helped spearhead the You Can Play Project.
Patrick Burke’s brother, Brendan, was also a hockey man engrained in the sport as a team manager for the University of Miami-Ohio Red Hawks hockey team. He also happened to be gay and announced his sexual orientation to his family in 2007. While the Burke family, including Brian, were largely accepting of Brendan’s orientation, they shared a collective concern about how the hockey world might perceive the news. Further, they had great concern with Brendan’s career choice in hockey management, knowing the “rough and gruff” nature of the business and the potential for lack of understanding.
Brendan’s announcement sparked a widespread conversation about LGBT issues in sports and helped turn Brian Burke — the gruff, no-nonsense promoter of hockey into a leading voice for acceptance of gays in the NHL.
Tragically, in February 2010, Brendan Burke died in a car accident in Indiana. Patrick Burke wrote a brilliant tribute to Brendan on Outsports, a leading website for gays in sports. This would become the foundation of the You Can Play Project. Patrick wrote the following phrase about his brother’s legacy: “If you can play, you can play.” “I liked the way it sounded. It was a simple expression that players could use and that fans could use to let people know that the sports world is more welcoming than people think,” said Burke.
The Impact on Gay Athletes
The “If you can play, you can play” ideal stuck and is now at the center of Patrick and Brendan’s brain child that has dedicated itself to creating an “even playing field” for all athletes; whether they be LGBT or otherwise. We asked the question earlier about what has changed in the landscape of sports that would inculcate an environment where current, major sport athletes would feel accepted enough to proudly announce his/her sexuality? The sporting world at large has some maturing to do but The You Can Play Project has played an integral role with the successful coming out parties for Jason Collins, Michael Sam and Derrick Gordon.
Jason Collins an NBA center with 10+ years of service certainly took a road less travelled when he announced his sexual orientation via Sports Illustrated in 2013. Unlike Sam and Gordon, Collins had a bit more stability in his life as a Stanford Graduate who’s made good financial investments and was in the twilight of his career. He did, however, play parts of the 2013/14 season with the Brooklyn Nets post coming out. Because of the stable nature of Collins during his coming out, the You Can Play Project assisted the NBA veteran after his announcement with support and guidance. Collins bravely opened the flood-gates for lesser established athletes, who with the help of the You Can Play Project now live their lives in the spotlight as openly gay.
“The SEC defensive player of the year should’ve been drafted in the first round”, said many in the LGBT community. “Why did Michael Sam kiss his boyfriend and smear cake on his face on draft day?” screamed conservatives around the country. The Michael Sam draft saga presented cultural questions from all sides of the spectrum last week as the St. Louis Rams drafted him in the 7th Round of this year’s NFL Draft. It is for these reasons and more that You Can Play engages and offers a comprehensive suite of support for players like Sam who can flat-out play, but just so happen to be gay.
Patrick Burke was kind enough to sit down with us for a few minutes and remarked that his organization was “made aware of the impending Sam announcement 2 months prior through Sam’s camp and the NFL.” Michael Sam had many questions about how his announcement might be perceived by the NFL, its fans and the world at large. This is where Wade Davis, Executive Director of The You Can Play Project, comes into play. Wade counseled Sam for 2 months, helping him prepare for life in the spotlight and, more importantly, providing him the tool belt necessary to negotiate the bigotry and homophobia he would certainly face. Moreover, Wade and Burke worked with the Rams, assisting with team announcements and the NFL on policies pertaining to media relations. As Burke puts it, “The You Can Play Project handles everything possible for the LGBT athlete, so all he/she has to worry about is playing on the field.”
Of the three recent mainstream athletes announcing their gay status, Burke and Davis were most involved with Derrick Gordon. “Gordon was a fun one,” remarked Burke when speaking about Derrick Gordon, UMass basketball player, who became the first ever openly gay NCAA Division 1 basketball player. Wade Davis worked with Gordon for a year, mentoring, preparing and encouraging the collegiate athlete to move forward. Burke worked in the back ground, solving logistical issues, handling public and media relations to ensure a smooth sailing process so that Gordon could focus on playing basketball.
As mentioned early in the article, the numbers say there could be up to 178 gay athletes in major professional sports. In the last year and a half, just 3 players have announced they were gay. Burke commented that many gay athletes have chosen to remain silent about their sexuality, but there are many more than just the 3 recently announced players. “Wade works with many players on a confidential basis, from Division 3 hockey to the NFL. I’m his boss and he won’t reveal to me, even if I asked, who he’s working with,” said Burke. “If Deadspin ever got a hold of Davis’ phone, they would have a field day.” Needless to say, The You Can Play Project’s work is never done.
There are many more gay athletes that need guidance, support and an understanding world at large. What might have happened to Glenn Burke if he had resources such as these? We’ll never know. Here at Busch League Sports, we’re going to launch a fund-raising campaign for our friends at The You Can Play Project so they can focus on what THEY’RE good at: helping people.
Pay You Can Play a visit and if you’re so willing, make a donation. Patrick Burke and his staff are a non-profit organization who could use additional funding to keep their invaluable works in motion.