You Can Play recently partnered with the NHL and NHLPA for an initiative designed at curbing homophobia within the sport. My story on that is here.
I spoke with You Can Play co-founder Patrick Burke and Washington Capitals forward Matt Hendricks for that story. Here are those interviews, in their entirety:
Q: Saw recently that the NHL and NHLPA put this initiative together with You Can Play. What’s the next step for gay rights in sports and hockey?
Burke: “The next step is putting these programs into place to make you say that we’ve got the resources and the ability to do what we’ve set out to do, which is have confidential information available to players who need to ask questions or need to reach out, have people that they can talk to who can answer their questions for them, and keep our work going on the cultural side of things and trying to change sports culture from the top down.”
“Beyond that, beyond what it means, kind of the bricks and mortar getting the work done I think what you’ll start seeing is more leagues implementing similar programs around the sports world.”
Q: What has to happen for that culture change in hockey? How soon until there is an openly gay player accepted in the NHL?
Burke: “In hockey, in 2006 in a Sports Illustrated survey, 80 percent of NHL players said they would support an openly gay teammate. So in hockey when did it become culturally acceptable to be gay? At least 2006. So the bigger issue now is changing the language in the locker rooms to which I still believe at the NHL level it isn’t perfect but it isn’t terrible. But our players will happily support an openly gay teammate, I have no doubt about that.”
Q: How do you go about changing the language in locker rooms for 25, 35, 40-year-old guys that has been present in sports for years?
Burke: “And we’re only asking them to remove, what, five or 10 words from their vocabulary? It’s just about education. Most of the, we call it, ‘casual homophobia,’ active homophobia being where you hold down the gay kid and beat the crap out of it, I think everyone knows that’s a problem. It’s sitting there using those words, saying, ‘Oh, that’s so gay,’ when you mean, ‘Oh, that’s not cool,’ or ‘That movie was so gay’ when you mean you didn’t like that movie. Everything we do is based around education on this issue, that the words that you’re using have an effect on the people around you. It’s why I always speak alongside LBGT athletes who share their stories. We talk about what the language in the locker room meant to them and why eliminating that language is important. We draw the parallel a lot that homophobic slurs are the only slurs that people excuse away as having two meanings. No one ever uses a racial slur and than says, ‘Oh I don’t mean it in that way.’ So we’ll draw that comparison, telling teams, ‘You would never use the N-word to describe a movie,’ or, I’m Irish-American, so I’ll use an Irish slur – you would never say, ‘Oh, that drill is for Micks.’ But you’ll hear on the court or on the field, ‘Oh, that drill’s for fags.’ We need to get the players’ vocabulary to catch up to where their hearts and minds already are.”
Q: What’s keeping there from being an openly gay player in hockey?
Burke: “The problems that this player or these players are going to have is going to be all media-related with having to deal with media pressure, with being seen as the role model, being seen as the figurehead. Especially in the National Hockey League and I believe in all the major sports, the player’s teammates will have no issue with it, the player’s coaches will have no issues with it as long as the player continues to show up and do his job. I think the reaction from within the sports community is going to be a great big shrug of the shoulders and then everyone goes back to work. The issues are going to be media attention, media hype, reporters coming in after games asking a ton of a questions. And that’s where we’re prepared to stand in and kind of pass block for these guys and handle as much as we can of the media pressure and alleviate that.”
Q: Does that also mean the first player to come out will have to be someone who understands there will be that kind of pressure and attention?
Burke: “I think the reason that we don’t have athletes out right now is because they do understand that. We haven’t had a player yet who wants to deal with it.”
Q: How much has Matt Hendricks meant to your cause?
Burke: “Matty was great. Matty was one of the players who called us. When we originally started reaching out to players, we got a great response right then. Then after we launched we had players call up. Matt called us and said, ‘This is something that’s important to me, that matters to me, that I want to be involved in.’ so when you see that extra effort, and not to take away anything from the players that we ask because they’ve all been wonderful and really helped us out in a lot of ways, but when you see a player step up and say, ‘I want to be a part of this, I want to be seen as a role model on this,’ I think it’s really impressive. And Matt, and I know his wife was also one of the driving forces behind it. So I think the whole Hendricks family really has to get a lot of credit.”
Q: What was the impetus for you and your wife wanting to get involved with You Can Play?
Hendricks: “It was my wife. I think the opportunity came to her first to see. I think that was kind of the way of going about it, to see who was interested in doing it or not. And my wife brought it up to me and said, ‘I think it would be something good for you to do because we have kids now and as a good role model for your own kids, let alone others in sports and in the communities that you play in, it’s important.’ So that’s where we started. It’s more that trying to get the message out there that obviously anyone can play. It doesn’t matter on sexual orientation. But also getting the message out there of what’s OK and what’s not OK to say in the locker room and in the arenas. Stuff that when we were growing up, words were probably thrown around a little bit too loosely. And realizing that that’s wrong, I’m at the position now where I can help make sure that others won’t make the same mistakes that we did.”
Q: Is it tough to get rid of that language in the locker room?
Hendricks: “Not if you’re raised that way, not if your coaches, they’re going to hear the culture of the locker room as you’re growing up. The coaches are going to be able to hear what’s said, and they need to say when things aren’t OK. They need to be able to address that.
Q: Patrick Burke said attention is the one thing standing in the way of a player coming out. When that does happen, whether it’s next year, 10 years from now, how do players support that guy?
Hendricks: “Obviously there’s going to be attention on it, for sure, through the media and everything else. But as a teammate I think it’s going to be a lot less than people do. Yeah, I do. People, I think, for the most part are going to understand it, are going to respect it and realize that, you know, we don’t really have a say in it. It’s not your decision, it’s their decision. We care about our teammates and everything else. It’s not going to be as big of a deal for the players as many think, in my opinion.”
Q: Burke said it was going to be a bigger deal for the media.
Hendricks: “That’s what I think.”
Q: But it seems like the culture is there for it. Do you feel like it wouldn’t be an issue in any locker room?
Hendricks: “Obviously I can’t speak for everyone. I can only speak for myself. But in my opinion I don’t think it would be that big of a deal. Obviously there’s going to be a few individuals who it may not sit well with, but on the grand majority, I would feel that we’d talk about it for a day or two and just go on with our business.”
Q: Does the NHL/NHLPA initiative change your role with You Can Play?
Hendricks: “I’m just, whatever they come to me with. Last year my wife and I, through the team, reached out to them saying that I’d be OK with it. I think Mike Knuble did it first and I kind of talked to him a little bit about it. A lot of my decision was for the same reasons his was on why we did it and why we thought it would be a good thing to do. Now that’s kind of where we are. If they need me to do more, I’d be more than happy to.”