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Brendan Burke's death has left a void. Who will take up the mantle?

By Cyd Zeigler

I never met Brendan Burke save for a “way to go” note I sent him after he came out publicly in November. To be honest, when the story came out I wondered what impact it would have. We’d seen former athletes come out, we’d met gay kids who quit sports because of their sexuality, and we’d heard proud parents talk about their gay children. The cynic in me wondered what was so special about this story.

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But with sudden deaths like this, you don’t have to be best friends with a man you came to respect through his actions from afar to feel a punch to the gut when he passes.

Brendan’s youth strikes a chord with all of us. When I was his age, I was still trying to figure out how I could keep living a lie. At 21, Brendan had that settled, had his family on board, and was blazing a bright new trail for himself and other young gay hockey sportsmen like him. The lost potential of this beautiful young man is heartbreaking.

He represented something special in part because we still have so few people like him in our culture: A sportsman who was willing to tell the world that his love wasn’t bounded by societal norms, who was willing to buck the trend of thousands of closeted athletes and come out as a gay man in sports. If you couldn’t count the number of openly gay former NHL players on a closed fist, maybe the loss of Burke wouldn’t sting us so much. Maybe if you could name a single openly gay active male professional athlete, his passing wouldn’t be met with such sorrow. Or maybe if the big four professional sports advocated real change in how gay men are treated in their locker rooms and on their practice fields, Brendan’s story wouldn’t have made national headlines in the first place.

Instead, it’s 2010 and none of those things have happened. While we’ve seen similar stories, we are given so few people like Brendan and his father, who refuse to be bullied by the macho culture of sports, that when we lose one it feels like our movement toward equality in sports is set back a year. The good Brendan was doing just being himself, coaching hockey and talking about being an NHL executive someday, made strides into locker rooms and sports front offices that very few people can make.

I know a very high-level NBA executive who is gay. He has lived as a gay man since before I met him 10 years ago. I wonder what he thought when he saw the reaction to Brendan’s story in November. Here was a kid who had aspirations of rising up the ranks of professional sports and who put it all on the line to do some good for society; Brendan decided that being an example for young gay people, and tearing down another homophobic wall in sports, was more important than his own career potential.

Already there, the closeted NBA executive sits in his posh office, reads that story, and says, “Eh, let the college kids make the changes; I have to worry about my next million dollars.” He tells himself lies about how it doesn’t matter what his sexuality is; It doesn’t matter so much that he won’t talk about it. He deludes himself that his private life should remain private; Even though his coming out publicly would change the face of professional basketball and provide inspiration to millions.

And there are thousands of male sports professionals over the last decade who have said the same thing to themselves. Not one of them has come out; Not one of them has had the courage that Brendan and his father have shown since last November.

That is why Brendan and other men and women like him are so special to us.

Thankfully, collegiate athletes and former athletes have been willing to jump-start the move toward gay equality in sports. Purdue swimmer Andrew Langenfeld has founded an organization for gay student-athletes; Former college football captain Brian Sims has embraced his opportunity and now works closely with gay athletes and speaks regularly to college athletic programs; Former Dartmouth runner Jamal Brown has become a fixture of the gay-rights push in Boston. And there are more coming…

Next week we’ll be running the story of an openly gay college lacrosse captain about to enter his senior season. The week after that we’re going to publish a story about a straight college wrestler who has become an advocate for gay rights. After that you’ll read the story of the Ivy League sprinter, and the collegiate runner in the Midwest, and the former college wrestler from the Mid-Atlantic, and the harrier at Penn. And there are more and more coming.

I know how the closeted NBA executive reacted to Brendan’s story in November, but I wonder how he’ll react to his story today. No one can perfectly fill Brendan’s shoes; But with his death, there is a void that someone needs to fill as best they can. I’m left clinging to the hope that the closeted NBA executives and the closeted NFL players and the closeted NHL coaches will stop making 20-year-olds do all the heavy lifting and take up the mantel Brendan has left behind. But at this point, it’s a false hope; It makes the loss of Brendan that much more crushing.