More than the score: You must play

Sean O'Neill - More than the score (Tom Bateman/AQ)

The timing couldn’t have been better for Brian Burke. Just as his Maple Stinks continued clogging up the NHL toilet and a Don Cherry bomb was dropped on him on Coach’s Corner, Burke and his son, Patrick – a scout with the Flyers – released a powerful public service announcement, which was first shown on NBC.

Backed-up by stars like Henrik Lundqvist, Duncan Keith, Corey Perry and Daniel Alfredsson, among others, the Burke’s stood in front of a camera and told the story of their son and brother, Brendan. He announced to the world that he’s gay in an ESPN.com article on December 2, 2009 called ‘We love you, this won’t change a thing,’ by John Buccigross.

(I implore all of you to read that piece, along with other stories written by Bruce Arthur and Mary Rogan.)

The initiative the Burke’s launched is called You Can Play, encouraging homosexuals to enter the macho, and sometimes homophobic, world of sports. A world where the word “cocksucker” can be thrown around like a ball of old hockey tape. Brian has marched in the Toronto Gay Pride Parade the past two years, once with Rick Mercer alongside, and with “BRENDAN 88” emblazoned on a Leafs sweater. Once upon a time, the idea of a bear of an Irishman like Burke participating in the parade was likely as a flock of multi-coloured balloons at a Rick Santorum rally.

At the time of his announcement, Brendan was a student manager for the University of Miami (Ohio) RedHawks. Only two months after he courageously came out of the closet, Burke died in a car accident on a snowy road in Indiana. His friend Mark Reedy was in the car and passed away as well. He was only 21 years old.

That same night, the RedHawks were playing and after the second period, head coach Enrico Blasi was greeted outside the locker room by Rick Vaive, former Leafs captain and father of RedHawk Justin Vaive. After the game, Blasi relayed the news Vaive told him and watched the locker room fill up with tears and silence.

I know this because Rick Vaive is my uncle and Justin is my first cousin. Rick told me that at the wake Brian Burke – who drafted Justin 92nd overall in 2007 when he was still in Anaheim – told him his son “made 10 friends every day.” Paradoxically, over his career in the NHL, Brendan’s gruff, argumentative father has done nothing but make enemies.

The public depiction of Brendan wasn’t about creating a narrative about a nice man who died too young to ease mending hearts; it was honest appraisal of a kid who captured everyone’s love, put smiles on faces and through his kindness, made his sexuality irrelevant.

Now a plan is in place to make those who want to be in sports, whether it’s at management or on-field, comfortable in the locker room like Brendan was. Burke wasn’t embraced more warmly than he was before, his relationship with the team didn’t change at all, which is the real victory.

Female athletes have been public for decades. The stigma for individual-sport athletes, including Canadian gold medal swimmer Mark Tewksbury, doesn’t exist. In team athletics, Burke and John Amaechi were step one. Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts coming out of the closet was number two. The next domino to fall is for an active player in a North American professional athlete to announce to the world that he prefers the company of the same sex.

Don’t be naive, gay men are out there on NFL fields, NBA courts, NHL ice and countless university locker rooms. Eventually it will happen, hopefully by their own volition and not by a camera phone and Twitter account. But once it does, a day will finally come that we all wish Brendan Burke was able to see the day this issue dies.

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