Growing up playing hockey, Matt Hendricks remembered the kind of language he would hear. It wasn’t always appropriate.
“Words were probably thrown around a little bit too loosely,” the Washington Capitals forward said.
He’s referring to what You Can Play Project co-founder Patrick Burke calls “casual homophobia,” the kind of language he hopes to get rid of as part of an initiative with the NHL and NHL Players’ Association.
“Our players will happily support an openly gay teammate,” Burke said, citing a 2006 Sports Illustrated poll in which 80 percent of NHL players vowed just that. “I have no doubt about that.”
In the immediate future, You Can Play is trying to change the way athletes talk.
“Homophobic slurs are the only slurs that people excuse away as having two meanings. No one ever uses a racial slur and then says, ‘Oh, I don’t mean it in that way,’” Burke said. “We need to get the players’ vocabulary to catch up to where their hearts and minds already are.”
Burke, a Philadelphia Flyers scout and son of Anaheim Ducks scout and ex-Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, spearheaded the creation of the You Can Play Project in March 2012. His younger brother, Brendan, earned international attention for coming out and promoting tolerance for gay athletes.
Brendan Burke died in a car accident in 2010, but in You Can Play, Patrick and many others keep his cause alive by hoping to ensure “equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.”
It’s not always a simple mission, even just to change players’ habits on Twitter.
Boston Bruins star Tyler Seguin took heat this week when he posted the hashtag “#Nohomo.” He promptly deleted the tweet and apologized.
Burke wrote on Twitter that what Seguin did was mildly offensive and that he and his team would discuss it with him, in accordance with NHL/NHLPA guidelines created earlier this month.
“Good apology by Tyler. Deserves credit for stepping up and admitting the mistake,” Burke wrote as part of a series of tweets. “He’s going to sit with us and talk about exactly why it’s a mistake, then we’ll all move on.”
It’s all part of a concerted effort to change the culture of how players talk, sometimes without thinking. Burke said in a recent phone interview that players are only being asked to remove five or 10 homophobic words from their vocabulary.
“It’s sitting there using those words, saying, ‘Oh, that’s so gay,’ when you mean, ‘Oh, that’s not cool,’” he said. “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.”
Hendricks reached out to You Can Play and taped a promotional video after his wife, Kim, encouraged him to get involved to not only be a role model to their young children, Gunnar and Lennon, but to others, as well.