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Gay athletes in sports: why you should care about Brendan Burke

By Mike Lieberman| Sports in Briefs
Saturday, February 6, 2010
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Brendan Burke died Friday.

Never heard of him? Maybe I should rephrase it in a way that you might better recognize him.

One of six children of Brian Burke, president and general manager of the most valuable hockey franchise in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and GM of the United States hockey team for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Brendan Burke died Friday.

Brendan Burke, seen here in a family photo after his father captured the Stanley cup as GM of the Anaheim Ducks.

For those who have heard of Brendan, you likely would have best understood this:

Brendan Burke, the openly gay son of Brian Burke, died Friday.

And unfortunately, that is what made Friday’s tragic event newsworthy.

I’ve never met Brendan, never knew him personally. Like most people, I only became aware of him when ESPN’s John Buccigross wrote a moving piece about Brendan in November.

With the Buccigross story, Brendan became a household name. His father, one of the most powerful and polarizing figures in hockey, showed his softer side. The University of Miami hockey team, led by coach Enrico Blasi, became a haven for open-mindedness and inclusion.

The article also made Brendan a question-in-waiting, namely: Will the hockey establishment be able to accept an openly gay man? Brendan was a manager of the RedHawks hockey team, but he was also planning to attend law school, with the hope of working in an NHL front office like his father.

Whether or not Brendan would have been able to craft a career in hockey will never go answered, though I’m inclined to say he would have. The issue prompts the natural follow-up, though: Would hockey, or any major league-level team sport, accept an openly gay man?

The immediate reaction to the Buccigross story on Brendan was that the NHL would accept him. Hockey, people reasoned, was more grounded and open than the other “Big Four” sports. Besides, he had Brian Burke on his side, a regular on The Hockey News list of the most powerful people in hockey.

But would an openly gay man survive as an active player in a team sport? It’s an astonishingly divisive question, if only because of the variety of answers and their rationales.

The “We Are The World” answer is, yes, of course. Sports accept athletes from all walks of life, regardless of skin tone, nationality, religion, and upbringing. That may be because at its highest levels, all that matters are results. Put on a uniform, outperform your opponents, and the sport and its fans will forgive anything from racial inconveniences to manslaughter.

Sure, such an athlete will hear it from opposing fans. But that just becomes noise to players, an energizing force whether it supports you or despises you. The media? Once again, that’s an accepted element to being an athlete.

The greatest divide for an openly gay athlete to cross will be with the players themselves. Athletes are stereotypically men’s men, explosive vessels of testosterone waiting to be unleashed upon the opposing team. But being gay is generally observed, especially among the hyper-masculine, as being less than a man. Locker room chatter is littered with derogatory comments about gays, directed towards players or actions that seem less than manly.

Jackie Robinson, left, with his Brooklyn Dodgers teammate, Pee Wee Reese.

Jackie Robinson, left, with his Brooklyn Dodgers teammate, Pee Wee Reese.

In this respect, it’s not altogether unlike the breaking of the color barrier, the influx of athletes from Latin America, and the arrival of European players in the NHL. Negative attitudes were common and locker rooms were divided. But leaders like Pee Wee Reese, who famously put his arm around Jackie Robinson, bridged those barriers and helped make integration possible.

Buccigross wrote about a similar evolution in his article. After Brendan made it known he was gay, the University of Miami locker room changed. The players were not only accepting, but their homophobic chatter even changed. But it’s only one step to adjust locker room language. That is as much as case of being more careful about the timing or audience in which someone uses a term as it is eliminating the term from one’s vocabulary. But when the language changes, the attitude must follow.

There’s an added element to crossing the rainbow divide in team sports, though. Before a locker room becomes a place of team bonding and banter, it serves a functional purpose as a place to change clothes and shower. For players to accept a gay teammate, they have to do more than just accept him on the field or in interviews. They have to become comfortable dropping their, well, guard.

Bob Costas observed this after interviewing former NFL player Esera Tuaolo, who publicly declared that he was gay after his retirement. “It’s a hyper macho atmosphere,” Costas said. “[A] number of players expressed almost Neanderthal views about sharing a locker room with a gay person, and being a teammate with a gay person and what the consequences of that would be.”

Equally as difficult to overcome are the religious or ideological attitudes about homosexuality. The player who believes a gay teammate violates natural law or is doomed to hell might never see him as just a teammate. Players with this attitude may never see the teammate, and instead only focus on these perceived “faults.”

That there would be a gay athlete in a major team sport shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Studies show at least one to several percent of the population is gay; at one percent, that would make for more than three dozen at the major league level of the “Big Four” sports. John Amaechi and Billy Bean, like Tuaolo, have famously “come out” in recent years, though they did so only after their playing careers were over.

The players still became lightning rods. Former NBA guard Tim Hardaway commented that he “wouldn’t want [Amaechi] on his team.” He added, “I would… really distance myself from him because… I don’t think that’s right. And you know I don’t think he should be in the locker room while we’re in the locker room. I wouldn’t even be a part of that.”

Pat Riley, his former coach with the Miami Heat, replied, “[Hardaway's attitude] would not be tolerated in our organization.” Riley continued, “That kind of thinking can’t be tolerated. It just can’t.”

That’s not to say that attitudes like Hardaway’s can’t change. The recently passed Bobby Bragan was one of the most outspoken members of the Brooklyn Dodgers, ardently against the arrival of Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball. Then he watched what Robinson went through and the way he handled himself. Historian Steve Treder said Bragan “saw that he’d been wrong all along, that what he’d been taught to believe was nonsense.” He would go on to found the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation, which every year awards scholarships to dozens of kids in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, regardless of color or creed.

What would it take for an openly gay athlete to find acceptance in a major league team sport, an environment that Costas referred to in this context as one of “hyper-heterosexuality”? Costas observed it would take “a person of guts and commitment to do it.” This thinking isn’t unlike that of Branch Rickey, who searched some time for a player to cross baseball’s color line before he found Robinson. To be more than just a token gesture, Robinson had to be the best athlete that could handle the transition, not simply the best athlete.

Still, it would require talent. Jim Bouton, author of the myth-shattering Ball Four, commented, “The first [openly] gay [MLB] player is going to have to be a good player.” Sports organizations are willing to overlook even the most grievous issues if a player can produce. They will jettison a fringe player that brings them more grief than he may be worth, though.

Bouton made a fine point when he said, “You can’t wait for every single player to accept a gay player.” In fact, 63 years after Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award, you’re likely to still find pockets of bigotry in baseball. 100% acceptance is a fantasy, a practical impossibility, be it acceptance of race, nationality, or sexual orientation. And it’s naive to expect a Bragan-like transformation of every player who opposed a gay athlete.

One fact is quite certain, though. The first openly gay player in a major team sport will always be that, before he is anything else – and he will have to come to grips with it before he ever makes the announcement. Regardless of any awards bestowed or championships won, he will always be the gay athlete that achieved them. Costas opined, in the context of sports, “[A] heterosexual person’s sexuality, generally speaking, becomes just a part of a larger persona… whereas the gay person’s sexuality becomes a definition.”

Which brings us back to Brendan Burke. The 21-year-old was by all accounts an intelligent, thoughtful, passionate man with a bright future. But on this cold Saturday, a day after his passing, we find ourselves discussing this young man not because of his past or his future, but because he was gay.

Someday, maybe someday soon, this won’t be the case.

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