In October 2015, the New York Giants became the first NFL team to publicly support LGBT inclusion in sports. (Photo)

You Can Play

How one athlete helped ignite a multi-league movement to sideline homophobia in sports.

“Imagine if I was in the opposite situation, with a family that wouldn’t accept me, working for a sports team where I knew I couldn’t come out because I’d be fired or ostracized. People in that situation deserve to know that they can feel safe, that sports isn’t all homophobic and that there are plenty of people in sports who accept people for who they are.” — Brendan Burke in ESPN

Thursday, April 11, 2013

I had just filed what would be my last story as an intern at The Huffington Post’s Washington, D.C. office. On Monday, I would be starting a full-time position at a think tank, but today I wanted to savor my final moments in the newsroom. The past year had been chock-full of change and transition. In less than a year, I went from recent college graduate, to unemployed college graduate, to campaign volunteer on a U.S. congressional race, to press secretary on that very same congressional race, to first-time journalist in our nation’s capital, to soon-to-be employee at a preeminent progressive think tank. For a year that seemed to move at lightening speed, this was my opportunity to step back and appreciate the unpredictable course that led me to this moment.

My introspection was short lived, however, interrupted by the Huffington Post headline now splashed before me:

In an instant, the oxygen left the room. My hands began to shake.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Brendan Burke was three months into his senior year at Miami University of Ohio when he went public with what, until then, was a highly personal matter. He, the student manager of Miami University’s men’s hockey team — which, at the time, was the No. 1 ranked college hockey team in the nation — and son of Toronto Maple Leafs’ President and General Manager Brian Burke, was gay.

Brendan had already come out to his family and close friends. But the decision to share his story far and wide — first in an ESPN article written by John Buccigross— was rooted in Brendan’s belief that those in the sports community should be judged solely on their talent, work ethic, and commitment to the game, not their sexual orientation.

Brendan’s goal was straightforward: To ignite a conversation about homophobia in sports — whether in the context of the locker room, on the field, or among spectators — and to create an environment where all athletes, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, could feel safe. As Brendan explained in an interview with The Sports Network:

I think it’s important that my story is told to people because there are a lot of gay athletes out there and gay people working in pro sports that deserve to know that there are safe environments where people are supportive of you regardless of your sexual orientation.

At 20 years old, Brendan knew all too well how anti-gay slurs in sports could create a harmful, unwelcoming environment for LGBT athletes — even when exclusion was never the explicit, intended goal of a teammate, competitor, or spectator. Brendan grew up a student athlete. But after making his high school’s competitive varsity hockey team his senior year, Brendan opted not to play.

Why? As Buccigross summarized:

The real reason you choose not to play your senior year is because the atmosphere in the locker room gets progressively harder to deal with as you get older. Homophobic slurs become as commonplace as rolls of hockey tape… You say gay slurs have a direct impact on gay people in the area where they are said. You sincerely believe the majority of people who use gay slurs don’t mean them to be offensive; they just don’t realize the words’ meaning and don’t think there might be a gay person sitting right next to them.

When Brendan first came out to his family in 2007, they responded with nothing but unconditional love and support. Friends met the news in the same fashion. And his teammates on the Miami University men’s hockey team embraced Brendan in the same way that they had always done: “Burkey” was one of them, a member of the Brotherhood. His sexual orientation changed none of that.

After sharing his story publicly, Brendan was met with a groundswell of support. Finally, it appeared that a door had opened, even if ever-so-slightly, to start a conversation about homophobia in sports and how to foster an inclusive environment — whether as early as youth leagues, in college athletics, or as high up as professional sports.

Brendan had lit the torch. And no matter the distance, he was prepared to help carry it across the finish line.

“I wish this burden would fall on someone else’s shoulders, not Brendan’s. Pioneers are often misunderstood and mistrusted. But since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe! I simply could not be more proud of Brendan than I am, and I love him as much as I admire him.” — Brian Burke, in an interview with ESPN

Fall, 2008

I first met Brendan Burke in the fall of 2008, during my first semester at Miami University of Ohio. The setting was a kick-off event for the university’s College Democrats club, of which Brendan was a member. In a crowded bar buzzing with the noise of students returning from summer vacation or, in my case, trying to navigate the new and mysterious terrain of what would be my home for the next four years, I sat across the table from Brendan, and we began to talk.

Miami University College Democrats event, Spring 2009

It took no more than two minutes to realize that Brendan was a truly rare, extraordinary person who would one day leave a major mark on the world. Intelligent, friendly, and sincere, Brendan could command a room with nothing more than his warm smile and a genuine interest in hearing your story. In talking with him — about my interests, my family, my decision to study at Miami — I felt the calm sense of reassurance that comes with speaking with an old friend.

As he walked me back to my dorm later that night— the type of selfless gesture that perfectly captures Brendan’s big, generous heart — our conversation spilled into Brendan’s life. He shared stories of his interests, his family, and his time at Miami. He also shared the challenges he faced as a gay man involved in the university’s fraternity system. Walking together down High Street toward Dorsey Hall, I carried the sense that this person had a brilliant future ahead of him, an inspiring story that was just in its infancy.

Someday, Brendan Burke would change the world. And here, in a small college town in Ohio, he had crossed my path.

When Brendan came out publicly in the fall of 2009, his story was front page news in the campus paper, The Miami Student. The article included glowing endorsements of Brendan’s courage and his message, and as I left my 8 a.m. English class that morning, I grabbed the first copy I could find.

Walking back to my dorm, I eagerly read the article, peeling my eyes off the text just long enough to ensure that I wasn’t about to walk into oncoming traffic. When I finished, I took out my phone and immediately texted Brendan, not caring if he was awake yet. This was too important.

“I love you. I’m so proud of you.”

Brendan Burke and I, February, 2009

Friday, February 5, 2010

Roughly two months have passed since Brendan made sports headlines by sharing his story as a gay athlete publicly. Life, for the most part, had returned to that of a normal college senior. Weeks earlier, Brendan celebrated his 21st birthday. As the student manager of the men’s hockey team, he celebrated with the team as the Miami RedHawks worked their way toward what would eventually become the team’s third Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) regular-season title. And, with just a few months left before he was to graduate from Miami University with a degree in political science and French, Brendan began to prepare for his next big endeavor: law school.

On Friday, February 5, 2010, Brendan was driving back to Miami University after visiting Michigan State University’s law school. That evening, the RedHawks would be facing Lake Superior State University, so Brendan needed to get back to Oxford, Ohio — home of Miami University — to prepare for the game. But when the puck first dropped that evening at Goggin Ice Center, Brendan was nowhere to be found.

Earlier that day, the region was slammed by a major storm system that carried heavy snow, producing hazardous road conditions. The storm system would continue on to become a record-breaking blizzard — known as Snowmageddon — which would slam much of North America over the next few days, killing dozens.

As Brendan worked his way from East Lansing, Michigan to Oxford, Ohio, he encountered slick, snow-covered roads. On an icy highway just outside Economy, Indiana — population 187 — Brendan lost control of his Jeep Grand Cherokee, sliding into oncoming traffic. At just 21 years old, Brendan and his passenger, Mark Reedy, 18, were dead.

It was a loss felt immediately by the Miami community, the professional sports world, and, most acutely, those who knew Brendan personally. How could a person so talented, so charismatic, so loved, and with such a bright, seemingly limitless future be gone? Where was the fairness in a life so needlessly cut short? Where were we supposed to go from here?

In the hours and days that followed the news of Brendan’s passing, I — as I’m sure many others were — was consumed by these questions. I was heartbroken, devastated, and, at times, angry. Perhaps John Buccigross, who just months earlier published the ESPN article on Brendan’s decision to come out and his family’s unwavering support, captured my internal strife best in an article published just days after Brendan’s death:

A few select people on this earth illuminate. They shine with a softened glow. Not a glow for show, but a glow from an intense love of people and life. You might know a person like this.
Brendan Gilmore Burke, who died Friday in a car accident in Indiana and was buried Tuesday in Dorchester, Mass., was one of those people. That was why, at his open-casket wake Monday night, I knelt before him and softly grabbed his right arm hoping for one more jolt, craving one more moment of enlightenment and wondering what the next 21 years would have been like.
A terrible loss for the Burke/Gilmore family and Brendan’s friends? Unspeakably and unquestionably…But Brendan Gilmore Burke’s death is an even bigger loss for the people in the future who would have known and experienced him just once or on a daily basis. I feel the loss the most for these unknown faces. Because during the next 21 years, they will never see the light.
Miami University men’s hockey team

“This is what the issue is. This defines sports. If you’re good enough, you get to be in there, you get to help us win. For the LGBT community, that’s all they want — a fair chance.” — Patrick Burke, Brendan’s brother and co-founder of the You Can Play Project

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Photo taken from Huffington Post blog post (by Anna Aagenes)

On a brisk Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, more than 30 LGBT youth from nearby Newark anxiously waited to take the field to participate in a game-day tradition: These youth would form “the gauntlet,” cheering on New York Giants players as they stormed the field before kick off.

The unforgettable experience — beautifully summarized by Anna Aagenes was the product of a collaboration between the Giants Foundation, the Hetrick Martin Institute, and the You Can Play Project.

The event built upon previous efforts by the New York Giants to take a leadership role in promoting LGBT equality in professional sports, particularly football. In October, the Giants made sports history by becoming the first National Football League (NFL) team to back You Can Play by filming a PSA voicing the team’s support for LGBT-inclusion in athletics.

You Can Play Project

Of course, while the Giants were the first in their league to show official support for the LGBT community, they follow a long list of high school, college, and professional athletic teams, players, coaches, and officials who have publicly demonstrated their support for building a more inclusive, safe environment for LGBT players and fans — thanks, in large part, to the tireless efforts of You Can Play.

The inspiration behind You Can Play? Brendan Burke.

You Can Play was co-founded in 2011 by Brendan’s brother, Patrick Burke, along with Brian Kitts. Today, the organization — now led by Wade Davis — aims “to change the sometimes homophobic culture of locker rooms with a message that athletes should be judged on athletic skill and ability, not sexual orientation or other discriminatory factors.”

Their message is simple: If you can play, you can play.

It’s a movement that has only continued to grow in its size and impact. The National Hockey League (NHL) and the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) are official partners with You Can Play. Meanwhile, the NHL, the Canadian Olympic Committee, the New York Giants, Stanford University, Cornell University, the University of Wisconsin, and the Ohio State University are just a few among many that have recorded videos in support of You Can Play’s mission. Even the band FUN. has weighed in.

To honor their late-teammate, the Miami University men’s hockey team released their own video in 2012. An internship program has been founded in Brendan’s honor. And in 2010, just months after Brendan’s death, the Stanley Cup became the first major professional sports trophy in U.S. history to ride in a pride parade, making an appearance in the Chicago Pride Parade. The trophy was accompanied by Brent Sopel, who at the time was a Blackhawks defenseman, and who wore the initials “BB” on his jersey in honor of Brendan. The Stanley Cup again appeared in the Chicago Pride Parade in 2015.

Every so often, we have the privilege of witnessing monumental moments firsthand. On even rarer occasions, we get to do so through a deeply personally vantage point, experiencing and appreciating the moment in an intimate way. Sitting in the Huffington Post newsroom that afternoon — as my hands shook over my keyboard while I re-read, “NHL Announces Support For Gay Rights, Pledges To Fight Homophobia With New Initiative” — I was hit with a bittersweet mixture of pride and sadness. Fortunately, pride won the day.

One of Brendan’s favorite quotes —partly inscribed on memorial bracelets given to students shortly after his death — was from the late Senator Edward Kennedy:

For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

Through You Can Play, Brendan’s work still goes on. He continues to change the world. And it’s an incredible honor to watch this movement grow.

Miami University men’s hockey team You Can Play video