Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and the son of former Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, was a featured columnist in a special Sunday section of the Washington Post today, talking about how, despite Jason Collins taking an incredibly brave first step for gay athletes in professional sports, there continues to be a tremendous amount of ignorance in locker rooms throughout the country.
In the article, Burk—who is a cofounder of You Can Play, a social activism campaign dedicated to the “eradication of homophobia in sports”—shares several stories of his experiences trying to continue the work of his younger brother Brendan, who, as a closeted teenager, turned down an invitation to join his high school’s varsity hockey team because of the macho, homophobic atmosphere. Brendan came out in 2007 and helped those in his family and around him understand what he was going through and what it was like to be in a locker room with people throwing around anti-gay slurs casually and the effects it had on him. Brendan died in a car crash in 2010.
Patrick, now seeing things through his brother’s eyes, has made it his job to help rid sports locker rooms of that ignorance, going from professional locker room to professional locker room trying to educate athletes on the issue.
It’s hard to know how much sinks in. Some athletes have surprised me, though. Last fall I worked with shortstop Yunel Escobar, then of the Toronto Blue Jays, after he walked on the field with a homophobic slur written in his eye black. When Escobar wasfeatured recently in USA Today, he repeated almost word for word the points I had tried to drive home. I’m pretty sure he believed them. I can usually tell when people don’t.
When Collins was asked how he expects to be received in the locker room, he said, “I’ll be waiting for someone to make the first joke, we’ll all laugh, and then we’ll get out there and play.”
That’s my sense, too, of how things tend to work. The sports world is about as politically incorrect as you can get, and it always will be. Collins’s teammates will make fun of him for being gay. And that’s a good thing. If his teammates weren’t cracking jokes at his expense, that would mean they were uncomfortable about his coming out and felt the topic was off-limits. The usual banter is much better than silence.
But the key is understanding the difference between joking that reinforces team bonding and language that offends. Until that’s clear, I’ll keep going from going from city to city, team to team, league to league, making the long walk down the locker room hallway to a roomful of athletes with questions. I’ll fight to be patient, no matter how absurd the questions may seem.
The most common question he says he hears: “Will he look at me in the shower?”
Hopefully his work starts paying off, and, in looking at the reaction that Collins received after outing himself—aside from a few ignorant assholes—something tells me it will, sooner rather than later.