3 min

We can all play

How to gain, not shame, potential allies

His vehement response caught me by surprise.

“It’s not at all a good point,” Patrick Burke tweeted back at me, “and attempting to publicly shame players goes against everything we do.”

The driving force behind the campaign to make the National Hockey League (NHL) more hospitable to gay players was responding to my previous tweet challenging Pittsburgh’s superstar centre, Sidney Crosby, on his conspicuous absence from the You Can Play roster.

“True,” I backpedalled weakly, chastened but confused. “But wouldn’t it be great to add him?”

“It would be great to add every NHL player. Calling them out publicly lessens the likelihood of that happening,” Burke tweeted back.

My fingers paused over the keyboard.

“You mean invite rather than pressure support?” I slowly replied.

“I mean we’re working closely with the NHL and its teams to continue adding players. Trying to bully players into joining an anti-bullying campaign is only going to serve to scare players off.”

Backing players into a corner is not a productive way to gain their support, Burke reiterates when I call him a few days later.

“Then how do you gain their support?” I ask.

“Through education,” he replies without missing a beat.

Most NHL players are not informed, and many don’t want to talk about gay issues partly for fear of saying the wrong thing, he believes. “If you don’t know anything about it, you’ve got 1,000 questions,” he says, remembering his own questions when his late brother Brendan, the inspiration behind You Can Play, came out a few years ago.

“When I was 23 and Brendan came out, I didn’t know anything about it,” Burke recalls. “And it’s not like I was living in a shack. I’d just never been exposed to the LGBT community.”

But unlike other potential allies chastised into silence rather than nurtured into support, Burke was offered a chance to learn.

“It’s a gift of knowledge that we’d like to pass on to the next group,” he says now.

“The one thing that we try to do with athletes is be patient,” he notes. “We try not to condemn. We try not to yell and scream” — even when they repeat the homophobic slurs so commonly used, and so rarely challenged, in their locker rooms.

Sure, he gets annoyed when some of the guys ask stuff that’s insensitive, he admits, but he is determined to give them the same chance to grow that his brother gave him.

“For a lot of these guys, it’s kind of a ‘Holy shit!’ moment,” he says, referring to the moment they finally realize they might have a gay teammate, and that their homophobic language might affect them.

You have to give them a chance to have that moment — and to process it, Burke says. You can’t immediately turn around and ask them to join the You Can Play campaign. As his mom says, “You have to give them a chance to have their first reaction.”

And with some of these athletes, you have to wait for their second reaction, Burke acknowledges.

But patience and a willingness to educate will always be more effective than a “Get the pitchfork” mentality, he believes.

“I don’t want an athlete not using slurs because they’ll be punished. I want them not using slurs because they don’t want to offend their teammates.”

Ultimately Burke’s goal is to empower gay athletes to come out, take the lead and be their own role models. “But we’re trying to change the culture with the players we have,” he says. “If we can get straight players on board, we can change the culture.”

With 50 players and counting now on board and a barrage of mainstream media coverage and even support, I’d say the cultural shift in the few short weeks since the campaign’s launch has already been significant.

As for Sid the Kid, Burke says he has yet to ask him to join his growing team of allies. So I guess the question is not when Crosby will step up, but what we can do to support him and answer any questions he might have.