Boston College cross country runner Jose Estevez heard the slurs in the locker room. There was, “That’s so gay” or “Don’t be a fag.” Even though the sophomore believes the words were intended as playful profanity rather than hate talk, it was hard to hear.
“When I was in the closet — especially when I was in the closet — hearing things like that would just push me further back in,” says Estevez, now 20, who came out as gay a year ago. “By throwing around homophobic slurs, you’re terrifying gay athletes.”
Now there are signs of change. Straight athletes are supporting gay athletes in public service videos, antigay remarks from prominent athletes are met swiftly by public reprimands, and just this week, one of the NFL’s most visible players, Tim Tebow, cancelled an appearance at a Dallas church because its pastor has described homosexuals as “perverse.”
Helping propel that change is a Boston-based group called You Can Play, founded by Patrick Burke, a 29-year-old law student and recruiter for the Philadelphia Flyers. The goal: to get to the point where “casual homophobia” in locker rooms is no longer tolerated. Estevez volunteers with the organization.
“No one ever says a racial slur and then says they don’t mean it in a bad way,” said Burke, a North End resident. “What I tell these athletes is that you eliminate five or 10 of these words from your vocabulary and we’re 90 percent of the way there.”
Burke’s work with You Can Play carries on the mission of his brother Brendan, who was killed in a car crash in February 2010 at the age of 21. Brendan Burke was student manager for the Miami University hockey team the Redhawks, and he was gay.
Patrick Burke says his brother’s sexuality was a non-issue for both his teammates and their sports-oriented family; Brian Burke, their father, served as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Anaheim Ducks, and the US Olympic hockey team. Before Brendan Burke died, he envisioned starting an organization like You Can Play. Now it is Patrick’s mission.
The timing is right. Former Major League Soccer player Robbie Rogers revealed this month he is gay. And according to gay former American football player Wade Davis, the current level of discussion about gays and sports is unprecedented.
“I retired in 2004, and it’s completely changed in that time,” Davis said. “No one was talking about gays and sports. It’s just a conversation that wasn’t being had.”
Burke’s group, and organizations like it, are coming to prominence as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender athletes begin to come out of the closet.
But what continue to draw greater attention are the inflammatory comments from athletes about the idea of having a gay teammate and the rebukes of those comments from other straight athletes.
One of the biggest stories to come out of this year’s pre-Super Bowl events was San Francisco 49er cornerback Chris Culliver’s remark: “Nah, we don’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah, can’t be in the locker room.”
Culliver’s words were met with quick rebukes and an apology. But it was merely the latest in a long string of such remarks. Late last year New York Mets minor league pitcher Noah Syndergaard tweeted “Nice Crocs Fag Lol,” ESPN radio hosts Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin were suspended for mocking the appearance of transgender college athlete Gabrielle Ludwig, calling her “it,” and Cleveland Browns rookie linebacker Tank Carder tweeted an antigay slur, followed by “I don’t agree with being gay.”
Burke and You Can Play are part of the avalanche of straight allies who are coming forward to support gay athletes. Minnesota Viking punter Chris Kluwe came out strongly in favor of gay marriage, and college wrestling coach Hudson Taylor started an organization called Athlete Ally for straight athletes to support the gay community. Both Kluwe and former New York Rangers player Sean Avery have expressed support for the group.
The premise is similar to You Can Play. Both groups are rounding up heterosexual athletes to support their gay counterparts, making sports more accessible and comfortable for athletes and fans.
Burke has enlisted such hockey players as Boston Bruin Andrew Ference and San Jose Shark Tommy Wingels into You Can Play to speak out against antigay language. Burke frequently travels to college and pro locker rooms to talk about hurtful language.
“A lot of this comes from ignorance, in its truest, purest definition,” said Burke, a subdued and droll man with a head of prematurely graying hair. “For the most part, they don’t have any LGBT friends. Sports is a very insular culture. You lift with your teammates, you study with your teammates, you practice with your teammates. There’s not a lot of time to branch out and be exposed to new groups.
“When we explain that these words have a terrible effect on people, for the most part they say ‘Oh, OK. I’ll stop.’ ”
Patrick Burke learned from his brother the harm those words can cause. “A couple of weeks after he came out [in 2007] I had to sit down and apologize to him. I had to say, ‘I’m sorry if the words that I use ever felt like I wouldn’t support you or love you for who you are.’ To sit down and have the conversation with your little brother is a difficult and sad thing to do.”
Wingels, who played hockey at University of Miami when Brendan Burke was manager of the team, says the antigay teasing in the locker room dissipated when Brendan told the team he was gay.
“I know that it took a lot of courage for him to do that,” says Wingels, who marched with a gay hockey team at Chicago Pride earlier this year. “Brendan was Brendan, and this really didn’t matter to any of us.”
Patrick Burke says coming from a sports background makes it easier for him to talk to athletes. He’ll team with gay athletes, such as Estevez, at speaking events.
Burke says he’s not expecting these athletes to run out and champion gay rights after meeting with them. He’s looking for tolerance, which he hopes will grow into acceptance. In the short time his group has existed, he’s lined up athletes and teams to create public service announcements. He’s also found support from organizations such as the America East Conference, the NCAA Division I conference that includes University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“It’s so interesting to see how open kids are today in terms of talking LGBT issues,” said America East commissioner Amy Huchthausen. “We didn’t need to do any arm-twisting or anything like that. The kids really got behind the idea right away.”
Burke is gaining a reputation as the go-to-voice to respond to an antigay incident in sports. When the Toronto Blue Jays suspended Yunel Escobar in September for writing an antigay slur in his eye black, Burke and Jose Estevez were brought in to talk to him.
“Homophobia is still a big problem in sports,” says Cyd Zeigler Jr., cofounder of the website Outsports.com. “Anytime you have people avoiding sports because of homophobia, or killing themselves or attempting to kill themselves because of it, I’d say it’s a big problem. On the flip side, it’s slowly changing.”
Burke has helped shift the landscape for student-athletes such as James Nutter. After years of hearing antigay slurs in the locker room growing up in Kennebunk, Maine, he attempted suicide last year.
“Hearing that all the time, I just didn’t want to be gay,” Nutter says. “I just didn’t feel good about myself, and this was what I saw as the alternative.”
Kluwe, the 31-year-old punter for the Vikings, has been trying to offer an alternative voice in the locker room. He’s been a vocal supporter of gay marriage — and even posed in the gay magazine Out.
“For me, it’s an issue of justice and equality,” says Kluwe. “The guys in the locker room know where I’m coming from. If I hear someone say something that isn’t cool, I’ll say ‘Hold on, there are plenty of other good swear words that you can use.’ I’m never going to get into a screaming match with someone. That’s never going to change anyone’s mind. But I will constantly point it out to them.”
Burke says that he will continue to do the same thing and that You Can Play has been a way to constructively cope with his brother’s death.
“It’s definitely helped me get through some of those things.” he says. “Instead of sitting around drinking and being angry and sad, it gives me something to do. And it’s nice to think that we’ve done something that would have helped a 15- or 16-year-old Brendan.”Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris—Muther