The National Hockey League’s signing of a partnership agreement with You Can Play, an anti-homophobia group in sport, feels like a landmark event in the acceptance of gays and lesbians in North America. Given the exalted position of pro sport in popular culture, and its powerful impact on young people, the NHL and its players union have delivered a bodycheck to stereotype and prejudice worthy of Zdeno Chara, the 6’9’’ Boston Bruins defenceman.
Pro hockey is identified closely with physical toughness. The NHL has sent a signal to the locker room – and to the locker-room mentality that can break out anywhere – that sexual orientation is irrelevant to toughness, character and athletic ability. On another symbolic level, at least in this country, hockey is infused with something unmistakably Canadian. It could not be truly Canadian and exclude anyone for irrelevant reasons.
If you can play, you can play. That’s the motto of You Can Play, an organization co-founded by Patrick Burke, son of former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, after his brother Brendan was killed in a car accident. Brendan was gay, and an equipment manager for the Miami University hockey team. Brian Burke’s leadership since his son’s death in February, 2010, has been critical in raising the awareness of players and the league about the need to oppose discrimination and bullying.
On a practical level, the partnership means that You Can Play will run education programs for coaches and players, and be available for counselling. It may mean that players who wish to “come out” will receive support and advice. And any sport that wishes to be seen as cool now needs to show that it is inclusive.
Pro sports is not the last bastion of prejudice and stereotype – the Boy Scouts of America still bars gay members and leaders – but it is no coincidence that no active athlete in major-league hockey, baseball, basketball or football has said publicly that he is gay. Mr. Burke said he wants players to know that their organizations and teammates are welcoming. “My brother Brendan taught me what the locker room can be like for young LGBT athletes,” he says on the You Can Play website.
If you can play, you can play. It’s a powerful message, and not only in hockey.