SBJ/May 14-20, 2012/Media

Burke's You Can Play looks for more leagues, potential sponsors

Patrick Burke created You Can Play to honor the memory of his brother, Brendan, who was killed in an automobile accident in February 2010 — three months after Brendan publicly declared he was gay. Patrick, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and son of Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke, sought to spread a message of ending what he calls “the culture of casual homophobia” in sports.

“We want to change the way we think about athletes, gay or straight,” Patrick Burke said. “Let gay athletes play to the best of their abilities by letting them live free and without shame.”

Burke and his You Can Play co-founders, Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman, aim to take the next steps in their efforts. The group launched in March with videos on NHL broadcasts and websites featuring NHL players, including Zdeno Chara and Steven Stamkos, asking for acceptance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community on the playing field. You Can Play now seeks similar engagement from other leagues.

“We have enjoyed speaking with Patrick and learning about You Can Play,” said JoAnn Neale, executive vice president for Major League Soccer. “MLS W.O.R.K.S. [the league’s charitable arm] is committed to working alongside groups that support LGBT causes and equality. We look forward to working with You Can Play in a variety of capacities.”

Those efforts are expected to include MLS players shooting videos as NHL players did previously.

Burke said You Can Play in June plans to open an online merchandise store, with proceeds going to You Can Play programs. In the fall is the scheduled release of the organization’s “Playbook” — a guide for athletes, coaches, administrators, media and fans with a goal of making sure their sport, locker room, school or arena is safe for LGBT athletes.

But as You Can Play grows, so will the need for more support. Burke’s staff consists of volunteers, and the group operates without any corporate partners, though entities including HBO and Edelman provide pro bono services. Financially, You Can Play relies on personal donations. You Can Play also has received donations from the Gill Foundation and the Palette Fund, which support LGBT civil rights work.

“We want business leaders to align with us because they truly believe it’s the right thing to do,” Burke said of his not-for-profit organization. “But we also hope they understand that the LGBT sports community is a major, untapped market.”

Burke, who also attends New England Law School in Boston, supports his argument with statistics. A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released last June estimated that 45 percent of gay males in American high schools are athletes.

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