N.H.L. Announces Initiative to Support Gay Athletes
By JEFF Z. KLEIN and JUDY BATTISTA
Amid heightened speculation that a male athlete in one of North America’s four major professional leagues will soon publicly declare his homosexuality, the National Hockey League and its players announced Thursday what appears to be the most comprehensive measure by a major men’s league in support of gay athletes.
The N.H.L. said it had formed a partnership with the You Can Play Project, an advocacy group pledged to fight homophobia in sports, and planned training and counseling on gay issues for its teams and players. The league will also be involved in the production and broadcast of public-service announcements.
“Our motto is Hockey Is for Everyone, and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way,” N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman said in the statement. “We are delighted to reaffirm through this joint venture with the N.H.L. Players’ Association that the official policy of the N.H.L. is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands.”
In a telephone interview Donald Fehr, the chief executive of the players’ association, said: “Bottom line, it’s the right thing to do, and that’s what we’re all supposed to do in this world.”
You Can Play will help run seminars for N.H.L. rookies to educate young prospects on gay issues and make resources and personnel available to each team. The league and union will also work with You Can Play to integrate the project into their behavioral health program, enabling players to seek counseling regarding matters of sexual orientation confidentially. The joint venture would also step forward when players make homophobic remarks.
Patrick Burke, a founder of You Can Play and scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, said the demographics of the N.H.L., with so many players from Canada and Northern Europe, was part of the reason the league had taken such a big step in support of gay athletes when other top leagues have not.
“We have players from around the world, and a lot of those players are from countries that are seen as more progressive on LGBT issues,” Burke said. “So I don’t think it’s unreasonable or strange to think that the N.H.L. and the N.H.L.P.A. are driving this, in part because our players tend to be more comfortable with this issue.”
Burke helped found You Can Play in March 2012, after the death of his younger brother, Brendan, who was gay. Brendan Burke, a video coordinator and student manager for the Miami University hockey team, died in an auto accident at age 21 in February 2010. Their father is Brian Burke, a prominent longtime hockey executive with the Anaheim Ducks, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the United States Olympicy team. He has been vocal in his support of gay rights, marching in the Toronto pride parade before and after Brendan’s death.
“I think what Brendan did, starting the discussion within the hockey community on this issue, is behind everything that’s happening now,” Patrick Burke said. “I’m certain that my father and I would not have gotten involved if Brendan hadn’t spoken up. The N.H.L. would not be where we are today without Brendan Burke.”
You Can Play has worked with N.H.L. clubs and the players’ union before, including the distribution of a series of videos in which professional and college sports teams have expressed support for its mission of “ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.” Among the N.H.L. stars who have appeared in the videos are the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos.
“It’s not a big deal if you’re straight or gay or whatever you are, it’s a matter of being a good teammate,” Boston Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference said. “We take a lot of pride in viewing the locker room as a family and treating each other like brothers. If one of those brothers feels ostracized for what he is, it’s just wrong.”
In case an N.H.L. player comes out during his career, “the important part is creating an atmosphere where somebody is comfortable and doesn’t have to worry about what kind of reaction he’ll get from his teammates,” Ference said.
Burke said laying the groundwork for an openly gay player was not an official part of the program.
“But we’re ready to do whatever that player wants,” he said. “If he wants to do a thousand interviews and march in pride parades, we’re equipped to handle that. And if he wants us to pass-block for him so he never has to do another interview in his life, we’re equipped to handle that too.”
Even as Americans’ opinions about gay rights have evolved, a gay male athlete for a major professional sports team has yet to come out. But various news reports in recent weeks have suggested that one or more gay athletes are considering a public announcement about their sexual orientation.
The N.F.L. player Brendon Ayanbadejo has become something of an unofficial spokesman for the acceptance of gay players. He attended a meeting at the N.F.L. office last week at which three organizations active in the gay community and sports discussed how the N.F.L. could lay the groundwork to prepare for a player coming out.
Ayanbadejo told The Baltimore Sun that as many as four players might come out together, and that it could happen soon.
“The thing is we’re in contact with several players,” Ayanbadejo, who was recently released by the Baltimore Ravens and is unsure if his playing career is over, said in an interview this week. “I’m not going to name numbers, several gay players in more sports than just football, and what we’re trying to facilitate is to get them together and do what they want to do, do what is right for them.”
Ayanbadejo said that after his comments last week, “a couple of more players” had called Athlete Ally, the organization that supports gay athletes with which he is most closely affiliated, seeking guidance and connection. A loose consortium of supporters, including former athletes in several sports who came out after their careers were over, psychologists and friends are trying to help put gay players in touch with one another, Ayanbadejo said. What happens after that, he said, is up to them.
“As far as what happens, none of that is coordinated,” he added. “It’s going to be on their times, their terms. The only thing coordinated is support, them being able to talk to other athletes who have been in their shoes. We want to put them together and we can be there to support them in whatever they want to do.”
What does this have to do with Sidney Crosby's ass?