One-on-One with Patrick Burke, founder of the You Can Play Project

With their latest PSA featuring Tanner Glass and Dustin Byfuglien set to drop this week, we catch up with Patrick Burke to talk about the You Can Play Project.

Hey all! This morning, the You Can Play project released their newest Public Service Announcement (PSA) featuring Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks, as well as Winnipeg Jets Tanner Glass and Dustin Byfuglien.

The main goal of You Can Play is simple: to ensure equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation by guaranteeing that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team's success.

Patrick Burke, who is a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and President of the You Can Play Project was gracious enough to spend part of his evening with us, where we discussed the roots of his campaign, the outpouring of support he has received thus far and what plans lay ahead for both he and his co-founders.

Patrick has also recently done interviews with Canucks Army and our SB Nation pals at Raw Charge which are both worth checking out.

If this topic is of interest to you, we strongly suggest checking in at www.youcanplayproject.org as well as following both Patrick on @BurkieYCP and the You Can Play Project @YouCanPlayTeam on Twitter.

Remember: if you can play, you can play.

Enjoy!

TREVOR MAUGHAN: You conclude the mission statement on your website by saying: "You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete's skills, work ethic and competitive spirit." Could you not make the case that YCP is also changing the culture of society by using NHL players to affirm that it's okay to be gay?

PATRICK BURKE: Well, if so, then it's something that's going beyond what we're trying to do. Our major goal is to stay within the arena and the sports world. Obviously it's nice for young gay athletes to look up and see their role models standing up for their rights and hopefully it's encouraging straight athletes to speak out as well.

In terms of the larger cultural issues that are raised by You Can Play, that's something that's out of our control and intentionally so.

TM: Are you ever surprised to see the amount of outreach this project has already garnered even though it has only been operational for a few months?

PB: I have to admit that there are nights when I sit down to pull up our list of videos and get a little overwhelmed by the amount of players who have already participated in our PSA's. Not to mention that I feel some of these PSA's are pretty cool. But yeah, there are moments when I feel a little bit overwhelmed with pride by the way the NHL and other sports are responding.

This is something that was needed and we've reached the tipping point in the sports world over the last couple of years where it's no longer unacceptable or strange for people to talk about gay issues. We are very happy to be playing some role in that.

TM: You mention feeling an overwhelming sense of pride with how things have turned out so far. During the early stages of developing the YCP project, did you ever feel overwhelmed by the daunting task that you were about to tackle?

PB: There were definitely some sleepless nights at the start of it just because I've been working in hockey and I intend to continue working in hockey as a career. There was always a voice in the back of my head saying "if this doesn't work then you're going to be a laughingstock."

Between that and the sheer amount of work which has gone into the project, there were some nights where myself and my two co-founders Glenn and Brian thought, "Holy crap, what are we getting ourselves into?"

TM: Suffice to say that in retrospect, you have no regrets?

PB: Yes. The letters and emails that we have received from athletes affected by what we're doing has quelled any lost sleep. It has certainly been worth it just knowing that those kids can feel a little safer in their locker room.

TM: Do you think the strong response from athletes has anything to do with the simplicity of your message? (If you can play, you can play.)

PB: I think so and it's why we've designed the message this way. As I've said before, the biggest reason that our message is so focused on just sports is that we want to free athletes from getting involved in any larger issues, unless by their own choice.

For any athlete who has taken part in a You Can Play PSA -- should they wish to get involved in other issues then we can direct them to groups that do so. But none of them are forced to uphold it as an obligation. For example, Ryan Kesler is part of our newest PSA, and at no time will anyone be able to go up to Ryan and say, "Patrick Burke came out in support of this, do you support that as well?"

This is about supporting your teammates, fans, coaches and treating everyone in the sports world equally.

TM: Obviously the passing of your brother Brendan had to be an inspiration for the creation of this project, but was there a defining moment that you can look back upon and say that it propelled you to where you are now?

PB: More so than the death of Brendan, it was the celebration of his life that really inspired us. Seeing him step up and show what a difference one person could make if they were willing to speak out on the issue made us realize that if the voice of a twenty year old university student -- who wasn't even an athlete -- can make this much of an impact, then imagine what it will be like when we can get everyone else on board.

We've been trying to carry on what Brendan started and hopefully we've done a good job with it.

TM: Sports teams are commonly referred to in the media as tightly knit and characterized as a family. Do you think the camaraderie shared by athletes makes it easier for any gay/lesbian athletes to come out even despite some of the crude language that exists in a locker room setting?

PB: I think that once the straight athletes speak up and show their support, then coming out will become easier. Obviously any uncertainty that exists in a room is something that scares gay athletes back into the closet, but once our straight allies speak up on the issue, it will go a long way with gay athletes. Not only are these allies part of their closely knit family and considered really close friends, but to see that a teammate would support the generic concept of a gay athlete makes them feel supported and shows solidarity. At first it might be a little overwhelming, but as we keep adding allies to the list its going to make it a lot easier.

TM: We’ve seen what Magic Johnson has done to humanize the AIDS virus over the past twenty years while raising awareness and funds for research. How important would it be to have a player come forward -- be they gay or lesbian -- and become the face of your project?

PB: Part of why we're doing this is so athletes don't have to be the face of anything. We are trying to make it so if an athlete were to come out, that it would be a complete non-story. Athletes that have come out in the past five years -- and there's actually studies and surveys that have shown this at different academic levels -- generally face very few negative experiences. If we're talking about the NHL specifically, it's going to take a great deal of courage and strength to be the first guy that comes out, but I think that everyone will be surprised at what a non-story it really is.

TM: You touched a bit on when a gay/lesbian athlete comes out, it's generally well accepted by his/her peers. Have either you or your father (Brian Burke) dealt with any obstacles or homophobic resistance from those who don’t share your views on gay marriage?

PB: Not from anyone that matters, no. There's been the occasional anonymous crap on Twitter but generally speaking, no. The biggest obstacle we faced at the beginning was that no one actually thought we could do it.

TM: As of now, your goal has been to raise awareness through the YCP site, your PSA’s and pride marches. Is there a next step for the project and if so, what is it?

PB: We have been partaking in speaking engagements regularly with our partner organization GForce Sports, be it in universities or colleges to speak to athletes and coaches directly. Come this fall we'll be releasing what we're calling our PlayBook, at least until we can think of a different name. Basically, it will be a guide for any athletes, coaches, administrators or fans giving them the tools they need to make their sport, arena, team or school more LGBT friendly.

Ed. Note: Again, we would like to thank Patrick for his candour and for approaching us to help raise awareness for an excellent cause. Arctic Ice Hockey will continue to support the You Can Play Project by any means necessary as they continue to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.

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