Led by Molly Burke ’13, over 50 student-athletes came together last Friday to film a video for the You Can Play Project, an organization created to spread awareness about ending discrimination in athletics based on sexual orientation. Their motto: Gay Athletes. Straight Athletes. Teaming up for respect.
Burke’s older brother Brendan Burke was a student manager for the Miami University of Ohio hockey team, and helped bring awareness to the issue of homophobia in hockey, particularly after coming out in an ESPN article in 2009. Brendan was killed in a car accident in February 2010.
“After that a lot of my family felt that it was part of our mission and an important way of remembering him to keep on doing his work and ending homophobia in sports, ” said Burke.
You Can Play, launched in March 2012, is an organization co-founded by Burke’s other brother, Patrick Burke. The project began with a video of prominent National Hockey League players preaching inclusion and speaking out against homophobia in sports. Many colleges and universities have joined the project and created their own videos to spread the message.
Burke believes that the message is closely in line with what the College and its students stand for.
“It’s just a really good fit, the Bowdoin Athletic Department and the You Can Play Project together saying ‘Hey, we don’t care what your sexual orientation is, if you’re good enough and you have the talent and the character, you can play here,” Burke said.
Burke brought the idea to have Bowdoin participate in the project to Interim Director of Athletics Tim Ryan, who was extremely supportive of the proposal.
“I think it goes beyond just being important for the athletic department,” said Ryan. “It is important for all of our students to be aware of how we’re treating other people on campus and how we’re treating people generally. This is a way to help promote treating people fairly.”
Ryan sent an email to all Bowdoin teams, asking for athletes interested in participating in the filming of Bowdoin’s You Can Play video. He received an enthusiastic response. Burke prepared scripts for the athletes and the communications department filmed and edited the material last Friday.
Burke, though not an athlete at the College herself, has discussed her experiences at several Anything But Straight in Athletics dinners.
“I think it is a bigger issue than people seem to know here,” she said. “I think there have been a lot of individual experiences that people don’t know about...that have been pretty hard,” she said.
Burke sees the main issue for the athletic community at Bowdoin as the difficulty athletes face in deciding whether or not to come out in possibly intimidating locker room environments.
“A lot of teams have an environment, once they know someone is out, that is really safe and welcoming. It’s just the matter of getting teams before they have anyone who is out on their team to say, ‘Hey, we’re cool; if you can play, then we’re happy to have you on the team,’” she said.
Ryan believes a lot of progress has been made in making the team locker room a safe place.
“It’s a testament to Jeff Ward, it was a really important issue to him”, he said. “In the time since I was a student here in the ’90s, I think the locker room culture here has improved considerably, but there are always going to be improvements that can be made.”
Football player Michael English ’14 echoed this sentiment.
“With the amount of kids we have on the team, there may be a lag or two here or there, but even if there is, it’s maybe one of the younger guys that isn’t used to the whole idea,” he said. “The upperclassmen are really great about not just trying to enforce the policy of not saying these words [homophobic slurs], but even getting them to understand why not to use those words, which is almost more important.”
Burke’s father, Brian Burke, is the manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and she has grown up in the culture of professional hockey. Reflecting on these experiences, Burke believes that the idea that sports lag behind on the issue of defending LGBTQ rights is a strong misperception of the hockey community.
“I think a lot of people see sports as more homophobic than it actually is, and that opens a door for homophobia to have more of a place in sports.” she said. “It’s important to change the way athletes are perceived so they feel comfortable coming out as allies.”
At an event hosted by Anything But Straight in Athletics yesterday, openly gay Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley echoed this sentiment.
“The media keeps writing about the locker room, the shower room, and the trainer’s room, guys being naked and slapping each other with towels…but I’ve been in locker rooms for thirty-four years, [and] it isn’t as erotic and steamy as people make it out to be. It’s a bunch of guys trying to get out of there, and it’s just a horrible notion that people have about the locker room.”
LBGTQ issues have become an especially important issue this fall with the recent success of marriage equality referendums in three states. Burke says she believes the project is relevant to these issues since “a lot of people see sports as one of the last communities [where] homophobic walls are being broken down.”
Bowdoin is the first NESCAC school to participate in the You Can Play Project. Burke is hoping to continue spreading the You Can Play message with a NESCAC conference video.
“Sports are so important as a part of bringing people together. Every team has a common goal, and for any athlete to feel like they can’t be a part of that because of their sexual orientation is heartbreaking,” she said. “To grow up loving sports and to think that your sport doesn’t love you back is so incredibly sad.”