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NHL, Burke family unveil ‘You Can Play’ campaign to end homophobia in sports

Monday, March 5, 2012
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The National Hockey League has joined the growing effort by professional sports and players campaigning to end homophobia, introducing a new series of public service announcements to encourage gay athletes to participate in sports.

The new PSAs — “You Can Play” — feature eight NHL players, including Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks and Daniel Alfredsson from the Ottawa Senators, reported The New York Times on Sunday.

The campaign is endorsed by the family of Brendan Burke, the gay son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who gained national attention in 2009 with a moving coming out story profiled by ESPN.com.

Burke, 21 died in a tragic automobile accident in February of 2010.

The campaign is among a series of efforts by Burke’s family to open doors for gay athletes to participate in sports, and is intended to “make locker rooms safe for all athletes, rather than places of fear, slurs and bullying,” said Patrick Burke, a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers and a founder of the project.

“The hockey community rallied behind Brendan because he loved the game,” Patrick Burke said. “The NHL players stepping forward to support You Can Play know that creating a homophobia-free environment will make their teams, and the sport, better.”

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Patrick Burke said that the project was a combined effort by gay and straight athletes and fans, but that the message was mainly aimed at straight audiences.

“It is important for straight athletes at all levels to step up and let gay athletes know they will be accepted,” he said, “and to let other straight athletes know that homophobic language and attitude is never appropriate.”

No current NHL player has said he is gay, but others beyond the Burkes have expressed support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender causes. Last year, the Rangers’ Sean Avery lobbied New York State legislators to pass a marriage equality bill. In 2010, the Blackhawks’ Brent Sopel took the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Pride Parade.

In a 2006 Sports Illustrated survey, almost 80-percent of NHL players said they would support a gay teammate. “Hopefully, in large part due to my brother and what he started, I think our league is much more accepting and on board with the whole gay-rights issue,” Patrick Burke said. “It may be in part because we’re more international than other leagues, but for whatever reason, our guys are great about this.”

Jeff Klein and Stu Hackel, via Slap Shot, The New York Times

Thirty-five NHL players, including award winners and All-Stars, have committed to take part in the project, Patrick Burke said. The message will be shown for the first time during the first intermission of NBC’s Sunday afternoon telecast of the Bruins vs. Rangers game.

At the time of his revealing his sexual orientation, the younger Burke told reporters he hoped his story will give others the confidence to come forward.

“I think it’s important my story is told to people because there are a lot of gay athletes out there and gay people working in pro sports that deserve to know there are safe environments where people are supportive regardless of your sexual orientation,” Brendan Burke said.

The “You Can Play” website went online Sunday.

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