You Can Play: Three small words, one monumental message

Patrick Burke (left), Rick Mercer of the CBC (center), and Brendan Burke (right), marching in the Toronto Pride Parade on Sunday, July 1.

This past Sunday, when most hockey GMs were poring over endless notes and taking phone call after phone call regarding potential free agent signings, Toronto’s Brian Burke marched in the Toronto Pride Parade in honor of his late son, Brendan.

Brendan’s brother, Patrick, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, marched with his father and other family members, alongside members of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

Brendan was the first person who was associated with the hockey world as being openly gay. He was the student manager of the University of Miami hockey team, and had a real gift for making friends. A popular guy around the team, the players, the coaches — and, yes, the girls — all flocked to him.

Brendan passed away in an automobile accident in February of 2010. In the wake of his death, the Burke family banded together to make sure that there were people fighting for equality in sports, something for which Brendan stood firmly.

Thus began the creation of the “You Can Play” project.

Patrick had been doing speaking engagements for G-Force Sports, a group that advocates for LGBT athletes, and had been working alongside Gwen Wideman and Brian Kitts of G-Force.

“One of the things we talked about as important was getting NHL players to speak out on the issue,” Patrick says. “Everyone knows professional athletes are role models and heroes, and getting them to speak out was important.”

But first, the founders needed to come up with a message for those professional athletes to say.

“I was writing a piece for outsports.com, a thing about my brother, and I wrote the line, ‘If you can play, you can play.’” Patrick recalls. “I pulled it from the article because it could be a great message. It’s turned out to be an effective way to summarize the issue for a lot of NHLers.”

From the beginning, Patrick and his co-founders truly believed that the NHL would support their cause. Since its inception just a few months ago, You Can Play has worked with over 55 NHL players, as well as college and women’s hockey teams. They are getting phone calls from players and teams eager to get involved in any way they can.

“It’s amazing when you hear, ‘How can I help, where do you need me?’ from an NHL player.”

The first PSA that was released by You Can Play featured ten NHL players, including Brian Boyle of the New York Rangers, RJ Umberger of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and James van Riemsdyk, former Flyer and the newest member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“JVR was the first one to sign on, and then I emailed Hartnell and Giroux, asked if they had any interest,” Patrick remembers. “I got a great email back from Hartsy, saying ‘Let’s do it!’ in typical goofball fashion. He was very happy to do it.”

Because of the Burkes’ ties to the community, You Can Play has been mostly associated with men’s hockey, but the group is currently looking to expand into the other sports, including both men’s and women’s sports.

“There are major issues in womens sports that need to be addressed. We’re doing outreach to other major sports leagues, both male and female, and other college teams.”

Over the last three to four months, You Can Play has made some incredible strides in helping LGBT athletes and sports fans understand that they are not alone and that they have just as much a place in sports as anyone else. Fans both gay and straight have reached out, including one man who used the You Can Play public service announcements when he was coming out to his young son.

“It’s really nice to think that you’re making a difference,” Patrick says, “when you get emails from someone like that or young athletes who feel safer in the game. That’s a huge thing for us.”

Patrick and Brendan Burke

You Can Play was originally started as a tribute to Brendan and as a way to continue his efforts in the fight for equality in sports. Patrick believes that Brendan would be very proud that there are now athletes standing up alongside the Burke family on something that he really started.

The motto of the campaign is crystal clear: If you can play, you can play, regardless of your race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other defining characteristic. African-Americans, once banned from playing sports professionally, are now a vital component of sports, and women’s sports are continuing to gain more and more popularity day by day.

Patrick summed it up best when discussing the barriers that athletes have broken over the years:

“We have so many different ways to measure athletes, why are we still letting sexual orientation be one of them?”

More information on the You Can Play project can be found on their website, www.youcanplayproject.org.