October 11, 2012 at 11:22 am EDT | by Kevin Majoros
Playing it straight

About 16 months ago, I wrote about the role of sports heroes and how they could impact the public perception of the LGBT community. At the time, I was thinking about openly gay sports figures breaking down barriers and creating a positive image of LGBT athlete.

Fast forward to today and multiple straight sports heroes have stepped forward to help accomplish that task.

This past year has seen some incredible support from straight sports ally groups such as the ones founded by Hudson Taylor and Ben Cohen. And more recently, national buzz was created by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe from their support of the LGBT community.

D.C. United, Washington Blade, gay news, Chris Pontius

Chris Pontius (Photo courtesy of D.C. United)

Coming on the heels of all of this is the momentum being gained by the first specifically sports-targeted campaign launched within a professional sports community, the National Hockey League (NHL). The You Can Play project kicked off in March with all three of its founders having ties to ice hockey.

The You Can Play project seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.

The backstory began in November 2009 when Brendan Burke, an athlete and student manager for the men’s ice hockey team at Miami University, publicly came out.

The admission led to international conversation about LGBT issues in sports because Brendan Burke was the son of Brian Burke, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the upcoming U.S. Olympic hockey team. His brother was Patrick Burke, talent scout for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Brendan Burke was viewed as a pioneer in advocacy against homophobia in hockey being described as “the closest person to the NHL ever to come out publicly as a gay man”.

In February 2010, Brendan Burke died in a car accident in Indiana at the age of 21. That month at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the United States men’s hockey team wore dog tags inscribed with the words “In Memory of Brendan Burke.”

Patrick Burke penned a tribute to his late brother on Outsports and subsequently wrote the following phrase about Brendan’s legacy: “If you can play, you can play.”

Over the next year, Patrick Burke began working with Glenn Witman of GForce Sports and Brian Kitts who had worked with the Colorado Avalanche and came up with the idea of enlisting NHL players to help further the cause of a safe sports environment.

“We were in a unique position with access to professional athletes,” says co-founder Brian Kitts.

The trio began by assembling a strong board of directors and then reached out to all 30 teams in the NHL in an effort to get support from players which was received with a strong response.

“Our mission is very specific to sports,” Kitts says. “We will not be addressing issues such as same-sex marriage or workplace inequality. It is our hope that by leveraging contacts with professional athletes we can gain grassroots support of the campaign.”

As of today, more than 30 NHL players have filmed videos in support of the campaign.  Locally, Matt Hendricks of the Washington Capitals, the athletic department of George Washington University and the D.C. United have produced videos for You Can Play.

“It has been great to see that the campaign has begun to cross over into other sports,” Kitts says.

Why is the You Can Play campaign so important?

Just last month, Yunel Escobar of the Toronto Blue Jays, appeared on the field in a game against the Boston Red Sox wearing eye black stickers that read “Tu Ere Maricon” (which translates to “You are a faggot”). He was suspended for three days and his lost pay of $87,209 was donated to GLAAD and the You Can Play project.

Coming up, You Can Play will be releasing a guide for athletes, coaches, administrators and fans giving them the tools they need to make their sport, arena, team or school more LGBT friendly.

Projects like You Can Play will hopefully lead the general public to understand that the sexual orientation of an athlete should be a non-issue.

Patrick Burke will be the special guest this weekend at the Team D.C. Champion’s Awards at the HRC Building on Saturday. Tickets are at teamdc.org.

You Can Play can be found at youcanplayproject.org.

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