The noisy position Brian Burke has taken against Russia’s anti-gay laws is rooted in feelings that run deep. That’s why he will refuse to be silent about the matter when he touches down in Sochi next February for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“Nope,” Mr. Burke told me this week, “when I’m asked about it, I’m going to say how I feel. Something this repugnant should not be left untouched. There should be outrage about something this offensive.
“The law is reprehensible.”
This won’t shock anyone who’s known Mr. Burke for several years, as I have. The newly appointed president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames (and former Hartford, Vancouver, Anaheim and Toronto GM) has never backed down from a fight, although I’m not sure he’s ever taken on an entire country before. He’s certainly never been shy of the big stage or the public glare, and the Olympics will offer him a soap box of titanic proportions from which to press his case.
No one who knows Mr. Burke’s personal connection to this issue can be surprised by his passion. He became publicly pro-gay after his youngest son, Brendan, came out. “I had a million and one reasons to love and admire Brendan,” Mr. Burke said in 2009. “This news didn’t alter any of them.” Tragically, Brendan Burke was killed in a car accident in 2010.
Soon, Mr. Burke was appearing at Pride events in homage to his son. The paradox his presence highlighted was evident to all: Over his career, Mr. Burke had become a walking, talking embodiment of the macho world of the NHL. He often played to his rough, tough and gruff persona. His public image seemed, at times, to be almost a parody.
But people would soon discover that his beliefs about gay issues were deep-seated and sincere. His older son, Patrick, started up the You Can Play organization to honour Brendan. It’s dedicated to the eradication of homophobia in sports, professional and otherwise. Brian Burke sits on the board.
The Russian law criminalizes any public behaviour deemed to be pro-gay, including holding hands in public with someone of the same sex. For this, someone can spend up to two weeks in prison. Not surprisingly, Mr. Burke finds this distasteful. He says the law criminalizes pursuits that many parents of a gay child would wish to undertake.
“They have eliminated my ability to be a parent,” Mr. Burke told me. “If my son were still alive, it’s made activities such as public support and demonstration of affection and support for those in the LGBT community illegal.
“Even in his memory, supporting what You Can Play does or doing other things to respect Brendan [such as marching in a Pride parade] would be illegal. That’s wrong.”
Mr. Burke believes we should be outraged that the Russian government is, in his view, targeting and setting out to destroy a minority group. A history buff, he says the past has taught us that left unchallenged and rebuffed, bigotry escalates. The world has a responsibility to voice its objection.
Many people have called for a boycott of the Games. Not Mr. Burke, who will be in Sochi as an executive with the U.S. men’s hockey team. He believes that would only be punishing athletes who have trained for years for an Olympic opportunity. Plus, he says, the law was introduced well after Sochi was awarded the Games. But he thinks that sports organizations should refuse to stage any future international competitions in Russia until the law is repealed.
He’s urging Olympic athletes in Sochi to wear rainbow pins, in solidarity with gay people around the world and their fellow competitors. He hopes that if athletes acquire a few words of Russian before heading to the Games, they’ll include how to say: “I am pro-gay.” He’s said that You Can Play will outfit any athlete in apparel promoting the organization’s cause.
Mr. Burke will be decked out in the stuff. It’s uncertain whether that constitutes a violation of the new law, but he says he doesn’t care. He doesn’t intend to stop talking about the anti-gay law any time soon either.
“The pressure to do the right thing doesn’t end with the closing ceremony,” he said. “We have to get rid of laws based on bigotry and ignorance because until they are, people they’re aimed at will suffer.”