By Helping Gay Athletes, Group Hopes To Refocus On Talent This week, Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay player in NCAA Division 1 basketball. You Can Play, the organization that helped him through the process, wants to be irrelevant eventually.
NPR logo

By Helping Gay Athletes, Group Hopes To Refocus On Talent

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
By Helping Gay Athletes, Group Hopes To Refocus On Talent

By Helping Gay Athletes, Group Hopes To Refocus On Talent

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This week, yet another barrier fell for gay athletes. Just weeks after finishing his sophomore season at the University of Massachusetts, Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay player in Division I men's college basketball. Gordon told his parents in March, his coach and teammates last week. But more than a year ago, he told people at an organization called You Can Play. It's the same group that helped University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam when he came out a couple of months ago.

PATRICK BURKE: We try and pride ourselves on being almost like a Wal-Mart - one-stop shopping for all your LGBT sports needs.

VIGELAND: That's Patrick Burke, one of the founders of You Can Play. The nonprofit works with teams and players in all kinds of situations - athletes who want to come out publicly, straight players with questions about having a gay teammate, schools looking for help with diversity seminars, and more. Part of the reason You Can Play has been so successful is its proximity to pro sports. Patrick Burke is the director of player safety for the National Hockey League. His dad, Brian, has been a high-profile NHL executive for decades.

I talked with both of them this week. Brian Burke explained to us that the organization started as a tribute to his son and Patrick's brother Brendan Burke, a high school athlete who came out back in 2009.

BRIAN BURKE: It was a national news story because at the time, his father was the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

VIGELAND: That being you.

BURKE: That was me. And we lost Brendan, tragically, in a car accident later that year, in the hockey season. And then Patrick really came up with this idea and put it together to, you know, commemorate and really celebrate all that Brendan had accomplished. So I'll turn it over to Patrick.

BURKE: Yeah, I think what Brendan stood for was the idea that sports is a welcoming community that needs to do a better job welcoming the LGBT community. And the one thing that's great about sports is that it's a tremendous equalizer, except in terms of talent. All that matters is how good you are, how hard you've worked, how much preparation you've put in, how naturally talented you are.

And the other things that divide us in society - whether it's your sexual orientation, your gender, your gender identity, your race, your religion, your - you know, any of the thousands of other labels that people like to put on each other, none of that matters. So our motto is: If you can play, you can play.

VIGELAND: Patrick, why was it important to you to start an organization like this?

BURKE: My brother was my best friend. He was the person I was closest to in this world, and someone I cared about very deeply. So when he left hockey as a senior in high school - we had gone to the same high school. We were five years apart, and I had been a player on the varsity team. And I never did anything to change the culture in that locker room. I never knew what effect homophobic slurs had on teammates. I never knew that there was a problem with my language.

And five years later, Brendan didn't feel safe in that locker room. And I've always regretted the fact that I didn't know better at the time; that I didn't create a safer space for my younger brother to stay in the game. I think it's my responsibility, and our responsibility as an organization, to make up for that and make the sports world welcoming not just in that one hockey locker room, but in every locker room at every level.

VIGELAND: What do you do when an athlete gets in touch with you?

BURKE: Most of what I do personally is a behind-the-scenes thing. But as an organization, first and foremost is taking care of the athlete's needs, making sure that he or she is prepared for what's coming. There are a lot of people who think they want to go public, and then they see exactly what it entails and they decide not to.

There are a lot of people who think, you know, I really want to work with LGBT youth, and then it turns out they're really bad with kids. There are a lot of people who say they're going to come out to their team, and then they have a horrible coming out experience at home and never come out to their team.

So the first thing that we do is prioritize the athlete. These are human beings. It's not just a story. It's not just a media flash for us. It's, you know, Derrick Gordon is a 22-year-old kid who is still growing up. He's still in college, and he still needs a lot of guidance.

So we work with them to get them ready. We coordinate the media launch. We coordinate media outlets. We work with the team, the coaches - in this case, the athletic department at UMass - to make sure that everyone is ready, prepared and well-spoken when this comes up.

VIGELAND: It seems like maybe, maybe we're reaching some sort of critical mass at this point, even though there have only been - what? - maybe half a dozen announcements recently. But they have been very high-profile: Jason Collins of the NBA, Michael Sam, Derrick Gordon. I wonder, Brian, do you think we are getting to the point where this is no big deal?

BURKE: Yes, I do. We're not there yet, but I told this story when I gave a speech last week. There were 3,000 kids in my high school, and not one of them was gay. You know, of course a scad of them were gay.


BURKE: But back then, in 1970, if you were a male and came out as gay, you were at significant risk. And so there were no gay students. And you compare that to now, the progress we've made - you know, the LGBT community has made in that time. But I don't think it's any greater than women have made in that time, and people of color have made in that time.

And, you know, biases and ignorance and attitudes of fear, they're not doors that are kicked in. There are walls that crumble over time. Time is the greatest ally, as we fight this prejudice and this bigotry. And, yes, I hope there's a day, Tess, when we're talking about hockey on this show and not athletes coming out.

I do think the pioneers deserve credit. I do think the Sams and the Collinses - I think those men deserve great credit for the courage they've displayed. But the acceptance they've received and the warm welcome they've gotten from the public, I think that's what's paving the way for the next group of athletes to not require so much courage.

VIGELAND: Yeah. Patrick, what is your hope for the future of your organization?

BURKE: Our goal is to shut down. From day one, our goal has been that we are not needed. All of us have careers outside of this, all of us have hopes and dreams that go beyond advocacy work. Our goal is that we get to a point in the sports world where this type of education is no longer needed.

I don't know what that timeline is. If you had asked me two years ago when we launched, I would have said about a decade. Now, I think it might even be less. What we want to is to get to the point where athletes like Jason Collins or Robbie Rogers or Brittney Griner are bringing their partner to the rink or to the game, and it's just seen as entirely and completely normal. And once we get there, we know we've done a good job.

VIGELAND: That's Patrick Burke. He's the president of You Can Play, and he joined us with his father, Brian Burke, who is the president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames. Thanks so much to both of you.

BURKE: Thank you.

BURKE: Thank you, Tess. Thanks for having us on. It's important stuff.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.