This ESPN story is breaking all over the sporting news. Brian Burke, president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, "a most public example of hockey machismo," has a gay son, and accepts him. Not only that, but the son, Brendan, plays hockey for Miami University. As an out player, he is helping break down the walls of homophobia in sports.
Here's what Brian Burke had to say about his son:
I had a million good reasons to love and admire Brendan. This news didn't alter any of them. . . .
There are gay men in professional hockey. We would be fools to think otherwise. And it's sad that they feel the need to conceal this. I understand why they do so, however.
Can a gay man advance in professional hockey? He can if he works for the Toronto Maple Leafs! Or for Miami University Hockey. God bless Rico Blasi! And I am certain these two organizations are not alone here.
I wish this burden would fall on someone else's shoulders, not Brendan's. Pioneers are often misunderstood and mistrusted. But since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe! I simply could not be more proud of Brendan than I am, and I love him as much as I admire him.
Several weeks ago, as it happens, Justin Bourne of USA Today wrote a long piece on homophobia in hockey. This led, through a chain of events, to the ESPN piece. Bourne had written:
Maybe the first openly gay NHL star will elicit stereotypical responses but hopefully the 100th is just a guy who will show up in my columns for being "a completely overrated, third-line defensive specialist at best." . . .
Whoever the pioneer is will have to know what he's in for - he'll have to be a strong man, possibly in the literal sense.
And it never hurts to have a dad who manages one of the sport's biggest franchises, standing beside you with an axe.
One thing I haven't yet seen mentioned in any of the coverage about the Burkes, however, is that last year, the National Hockey League gave its official sanction to the film Breakfast with Scot, about a closeted professional hockey player and the 11-year-old boy he and his partner end up fostering. It was the first time a professional sports league has allowed an LGBT-themed film to use its uniforms and logos. Which team did the fictional character play for? I.e., which team also gave its sanction to the film? The Toronto Maple Leafs.
I interviewed director Laurie Lynd last year, and he told me:
[The NHL] liked its message about being a good parent, and loving your child for whoever he or she is, and they thought it was a really good story about a modern family. They forwarded it to the Toronto Maple Leafs management, who also agreed. They've all stood by that decision, because there has been some controversy around that. I've been just so impressed by them. They claim they were not making any kind of political decision by doing it or statement, they just, for those reasons I mentioned, liked the project. They have also gone on record acknowledging they have a gay fan base, and they wanted to reach out to them, too.
The film was originally released in 2007, before Brendan came out to his unsuspecting dad at Christmas that year, and before Burke became GM of the Leafs in the fall of 2008, so it's not as if Burke agreed to sanction the film because of his son. Still, there's a certain karma there, and proof that the the effects of tolerance can go further than one might expect.
Breakfast with Scot is also a standout in the portrayal of LGBT families, depicting the richness of our lives without preaching or overburdening them with clichés. It's a great, funny, family film, and I recommend it highly.
Back to real sports, however. GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios recently wrote a piece for ESPN.com on homophobia in sports. He discusses how this affects professional sports in general, and also how it trickles down to amateur leagues and children's teams. Although the game isn't over yet, it seems like the Burkes are moving the puck down the ice. Hockey tough indeed.