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Patrick Burke's 'You Can Play' project launches on NBC featuring eight NHL players

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Philadelphia Flyer scout Patrick Burke has unveiled a new non-profit organization created to lay out the welcome mat in sports for LGBT athletes. The “You Can Play" project focuses on producing videos of mostly professional athletes with a simple message: If you can play sports, you're always invited to play with us.

A 30-second video of eight NHL players (including Blue Jacket Rick Nash, right) saying various incarnations of “You can play” airs on NBC during the first intermission of the New York Rangers-Boston Bruins game Sunday, March 4. The game starts at 12:30pmET. The spot was shot and produced by HBO. It is the first of many the group says will soon be available on their Web site. You can watch a 60-second version of the video below.

Burke is the brother of the late Brendan Burke, the openly gay Miami (Ohio) men’s hockey manager who was killed in a car crash in 2010. Since Brendan’s death, Patrick has found incredible support for his brother and for gay equality in sports. In fact, he struggles to think of any personally homophobic incidents he has encountered in the NHL since Brendan’s death.
The “You Can Play Project” is designed to show that sports simply aren’t as homophobic as many people think.

“The sports world is all about just talent,” Burke told Outsports. “If you’re good enough to help a team win, you can play. Athletes aren’t as homophobic as people think. Athletes are ready for and would support a gay teammate. And for most of these guys it’s a complete non-issue.”

While various athletes and some Major League Baseball teams have created It Gets Better videos to show support for the LGBT community, Burke found that many other athletes balked at the more-encompassing message of the IGB project.

“Some athletes who might support a gay teammate might not be on board with gay marriage or don’t want to deal with those issues,” Burke said. “We’re just getting athletes to say they want the best teammates and the other stuff doesn’t matter. And they know they’ll never have to take a position on gay marriage or march in a pride parade. They can just say they want a safe locker room and not have to do anything else.”

The You Can Play project wouldn’t exist if Brendan had not come out over two years ago; And the depth of Patrick’s involvement would have been a fraction of what it is if Brendan had not been killed tragically in a car crash.

“Probably not an hour goes by that I don’t think of him,” Patrick said. “He’s a constant source of inspiration and good memories. The nights when this was coming together, when I thought this was too much, I just thought about what he did and thought, ‘I gotta do it.’”

The thrust of the project, to show that sports are about performance not sexual orientation, has been at the front of Burke’s mind for a while. Two stereotypes have stuck out to him over the years that he feels need squashing: Gay men can’t play sports, and professional athletes are close-minded meathead jocks. While he’s been discouraged by the rash of homophobic language coming from professional athletes recently, he says that “casual homophobia” is more a leftover from a less tolerant past than a statement of current homophobia in sports.

“People using homophobic slurs, they don’t mean it as a homophobic slur. What we’ve found as we do the outreach is we get more and more teams saying they never thought of it like that. It’s a genuine, honest, ‘holy shit’ moment. They’re listening to Andrew Goldstein or David Farber and the audience thinks, ‘I’ve been using that language and I’m probably offending my teammates.’”

After Burke spoke to the Denver University men’s hockey, the team voted to not allow homophobic language in the locker room anymore.

As a testament to the shift in pro sports, it’s been quite easy for Burke to line up NHL players to participate in the project. Burke told Outsports that about 30 NHL players have already recorded “You Can Play” videos. At least two of those players, Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell, are from Burke’s own Flyers team. Other players include New York Ranger Henrik Lundqvist, Ottawa Senator Daniel Alfredsson and Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks, according to the New York Times. Other teams represented in the project include the Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks.

While much of the initial focus is on the NHL, Burke wants athletes of other pro leagues to participate as well. He also wants to see “You Can Play” videos from LGBT and straight athletes in high school, college and recreational leagues. The message, he says, is one that everyone can endorse. The organization is also developing materials for athletes and coaches akin to what GLSEN has developed with their Changing The Game project.

Also involved in the project is GForce’s Glen Witman, who has been fighting homophobia in the hockey world for years. Members of the advisory board include Burke’s father, Brian; Jessica Gelman, an executive with the New England Patriots; San Jose Shark Tommy Wingels; And ESPN anchor John Buccigross.

You can find out more about the project at www.youcanplayproject.org.