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Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke was told by his son Brendan in December of 2007 that he is gay. (Darren Calabrese/CP)
Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke was told by his son Brendan in December of 2007 that he is gay. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Jeff Blair

Team sports, a solitary choice Add to ...

It never hurts to have somebody tell you, "It's okay." But while Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke's support of his son's decision to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality is welcomed both for what it says about Burke as a father and administrator, it does little to make the shower stall any less tyrannical.

History suggests that for all the good intentions and words to come out of the story of Brian and Brendan Burke, as reported this week by ESPN.com, and for all the right-thinking ideas espoused, homosexuality is still a taboo in team sports. Actors, artists, singers and politicians have all managed to acknowledge being gay without necessarily ending their careers. But team athletes haven't - not while they're competing.

This should not come as a huge shock.

First, coming out is a matter of individual choice that carries with it profound career and, by extension, financial implications. To be blunt: Jackie Robinson could not hide the fact he was African-American. If he wanted to play major-league baseball, he would have to smash a barrier. In comparison, an athlete does not need - any more than you or I - to acknowledge sexual preference to have a career.

At most, we can make sure there are no impediments to choice, knowing that while real change does not always come from placards and barricades, at some point it takes a shock to the system to transform the norm. It is only when a high-profile team athlete in the middle of his or her career acknowledges they are gay that teammates, fans and the media will be forced to deal with the matter on a daily basis. If it's a superstar player? So much the better.

The necessary, ultimate step will involve a player with enough currency that he or she cannot be marginalized by people who would work against them. Somebody with enough currency and a bully pulpit to force teammates to be more careful about what they say and about how they act in the clubhouse, on the chartered flight and on the team bus; somebody strong enough not only to put up with the juvenile acts and hurtful chants from an opposing crowd but also prepared for the higher standard against which their day-to-day performance will be judged.

Frankly, at a time when social media is all the rage, it will also require a person with an acute instinct for self-preservation and more common sense at 2 a.m. than most possess at 2 p.m.

Do not underestimate the many textures of culture change.

Covering the Montreal Expos when Felipe Alou became the first native of the Dominican Republic to manage a major-league team taught me the thin line between preconceived idea and prejudice. So did hearing Alou say the real breakthrough would occur when "we [people of colour]can be fired and rehired just like other managers get fired and rehired."

Sixty-some years after Jackie Robinson, long after Roberto Clemente and Curt Flood and the emergence of Latino players among baseball's moneyed elite, managers of colour finally received the right to screw up as badly as anybody else.

The truth is, for all their work in breaking down barriers, Alou, Robinson, Muhammad Ali or even Martina Navratilova don't necessarily provide a road map for the modern team athlete who might be contemplating coming out as a gay person.

Brian Burke probably doesn't have one either.

One of the most telling aspects of the ESPN story on Brendan's struggle with how to tell his father the news is the seemingly enlightened reaction of the University of Miami (Ohio) RedHawks men's hockey team to the report. Although the cautionary part of it is Brendan Burke is not a player, but a student manager with the team and that counts when ranks close - as baseball learned all too well during the steroid era, for example.

So we're a long way from where we need to be. It is the locker room that must be the area of effective change, and an active player who must be the agent of change, if being gay is to become less of a taboo in team sports.

It's not that they don't make players like that any more; it's that they haven't had to.

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