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Why You Should Care About Brendan Burke

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Brendan Burke, seen here in a family photo after his father captured the Stanley cup as GM of the Anaheim Ducks.

Brendan Burke died Friday.

Never heard of him? Maybe I should rephrase it in a way that you might better recognize him.

One of six children of Brian Burke, president and general manager of the most valuable hockey franchise in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and GM of the United States hockey team for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Brendan Burke died Friday.

For those who have heard of Brendan, you likely would have best understood this:

Brendan Burke, the openly gay son of Brian Burke, died Friday.

And unfortunately, that is what made Friday’s tragic event newsworthy.

I’ve never met Brendan, never knew him personally. Like most people, I only became aware of him when ESPN’s John Buccigross wrote a moving piece about Brendan in November.

With the Buccigross story, Brendan became a household name. His father, one of the most powerful and polarizing figures in hockey, showed his softer side. The University of Miami hockey team, led by coach Enrico Blasi, became a haven for open-mindedness and inclusion.

The article also made Brendan a question-in-waiting, namely: Will the hockey establishment be able to accept an openly gay man? Brendan was a manager of the RedHawks hockey team, but he was also planning to attend law school, with the hope of working in an NHL front office like his father.

Whether or not Brendan would have been able to craft a career in hockey will never go answered, though I’m inclined to say he would have. The issue prompts the natural follow-up, though: Would hockey, or any major league-level team sport, accept an openly gay man?

The immediate reaction to the Buccigross story on Brendan was that the NHL would accept him. Hockey, people reasoned, was more grounded and open than the other “Big Four” sports. Besides, he had Brian Burke on his side, a regular on The Hockey News list of the most powerful people in hockey.

But would an openly gay man survive as an active player in a team sport? It’s an astonishingly divisive question, if only because of the variety of answers and their rationales.

The “We Are The World” answer is, yes, of course. Sports accept athletes from all walks of life, regardless of skin tone, nationality, religion, and upbringing. That may be because at its highest levels, all that matters are results. Put on a uniform, outperform your opponents, and the sport and its fans will forgive anything from racial inconveniences to manslaughter.

Sure, such an athlete will hear it from opposing fans. But that just becomes noise to players, an energizing force whether it supports you or despises you. The media? Once again, that’s an accepted element to being an athlete.

The greatest divide for an openly gay athlete to cross will be with the players themselves. Athletes are stereotypically men’s men, explosive vessels of testosterone waiting to be unleashed upon the opposing team. But being gay is generally observed, especially among the hyper-masculine, as being less than a man. Locker room chatter is littered with derogatory comments about gays, directed towards players or actions that seem less than manly.

Jackie Robinson, left, with his Brooklyn Dodgers teammate, Pee Wee Reese.

In this respect, it’s not altogether unlike the breaking of the color barrier, the influx of athletes from Latin America, and the arrival of European players in the NHL. Negative attitudes were common and locker rooms were divided. But leaders like Pee Wee Reese, who famously put his arm around Jackie Robinson, bridged those barriers and helped make integration possible.

Buccigross wrote about a similar evolution in his article. After Brendan made it known he was gay, the University of Miami locker room changed. The players were not only accepting, but their homophobic chatter even changed. But it’s only one step to adjust locker room language. That is as much as case of being more careful about the timing or audience in which someone uses a term as it is eliminating the term from one’s vocabulary. But when the language changes, the attitude must follow.

There’s an added element to crossing the rainbow divide in team sports, though. Before a locker room becomes a place of team bonding and banter, it serves a functional purpose as a place to change clothes and shower. For players to accept a gay teammate, they have to do more than just accept him on the field or in interviews. They have to become comfortable dropping their, well, guard.

Bob Costas observed this after interviewing former NFL player Esera Tuaolo, who publicly declared that he was gay after his retirement. “It’s a hyper macho atmosphere,” Costas said. “[A] number of players expressed almost Neanderthal views about sharing a locker room with a gay person, and being a teammate with a gay person and what the consequences of that would be.”

Equally as difficult to overcome are the religious or ideological attitudes about homosexuality. The player who believes a gay teammate violates natural law or is doomed to hell might never see him as just a teammate. Players with this attitude may never see the teammate, and instead only focus on these perceived “faults.”

That there would be a gay athlete in a major team sport shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Studies show at least one to several percent of the population is gay; at one percent, that would make for more than three dozen at the major league level of the “Big Four” sports. John Amaechi and Billy Bean, like Tuaolo, have famously “come out” in recent years, though they did so only after their playing careers were over.

The players still became lightning rods. Former NBA guard Tim Hardaway commented that he “wouldn’t want [Amaechi] on his team.”  He added, “I would… really distance myself from him because… I don’t think that’s right. And you know I don’t think he should be in the locker room while we’re in the locker room. I wouldn’t even be a part of that.”

Pat Riley, his former coach with the Miami Heat, replied, “[Hardaway’s attitude] would not be tolerated in our organization.” Riley continued, “That kind of thinking can’t be tolerated. It just can’t.”

That’s not to say that attitudes like Hardaway’s can’t change. The recently passed Bobby Bragan was one of the most outspoken members of the Brooklyn Dodgers, ardently against the arrival of Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball. Then he watched what Robinson went through and the way he handled himself. Historian Steve Treder said Bragan “saw that he’d been wrong all along, that what he’d been taught to believe was nonsense.” He would go on to found the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation, which every year awards scholarships to dozens of kids in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, regardless of color or creed.

What would it take for an openly gay athlete to find acceptance in a major league team sport, an environment that Costas referred to in this context as one of “hyper-heterosexuality”? Costas observed it would take “a person of guts and commitment to do it.” This thinking isn’t unlike that of Branch Rickey, who searched some time for a player to cross baseball’s color line before he found Robinson. To be more than just a token gesture, Robinson had to be the best athlete that could handle the transition, not simply the best athlete.

Still, it would require talent. Jim Bouton, author of the myth-shattering Ball Four, commented, “The first [openly] gay [MLB] player is going to have to be a good player.” Sports organizations are willing to overlook even the most grievous issues if a player can produce. They will jettison a fringe player that brings them more grief than he may be worth, though.

Bouton made a fine point when he said, “You can’t wait for every single player to accept a gay player.” In fact, 63 years after Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award, you’re likely to still find pockets of bigotry in baseball. 100% acceptance is a fantasy, a practical impossibility, be it acceptance of race, nationality, or sexual orientation. And it’s naive to expect a Bragan-like transformation of every player who opposed a gay athlete.

One fact is quite certain, though. The first openly gay player in a major team sport will always be that, before he is anything else – and he will have to come to grips with it before he ever makes the announcement. Regardless of any awards bestowed or championships won, he will always be the gay athlete that achieved them. Costas opined, in the context of sports, “[A] heterosexual person’s sexuality, generally speaking, becomes just a part of a larger persona… whereas the gay person’s sexuality becomes a definition.”

Which brings us back to Brendan Burke. The 21-year-old was by all accounts an intelligent, thoughtful, passionate man with a bright future. But on this cold Saturday, a day after his passing, we find ourselves discussing this young man not because of his past or his future, but because he was gay.

Someday, maybe someday soon, this won’t be the case.


Written by sportsinbriefs

February 6, 2010 at 7:31 pm

South Carolina and the $25,000 lesson

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The South Carolina Gamecocks basketball team knocked off #1 and previously unbeaten Kentucky Tuesday night, setting off a raucous celebration that saw fans storm the court.

One day later, South Carolina’s coffers were $25,000 lighter, the result of a Southeastern Conference fine.

Gamecock fans exuberance cost the program $25,000

It turns out the SEC has a policy in place to levy progressive fines if fans at a basketball or football game rush onto the playing field during or after a game. The first such incident earns a $5,000 penalty, which increases to $25,000 for the second offense and $50,000 for the third offense.

South Carolina guard Devan Downey, who implored fans to join the celebration, was unrepentant after the game when asked about a potential fine: “I’m pretty sure the university’s got some money somewhere to pay the fine.”

The prevailing attitude when a school is fined for rushing the court is mild surprise. In a world where the sports pages are invaded by offenses of varying nature, exuberant celebration appears to be the least of our worries. After all, the same day the fine was announced, the NBA saw fit to suspend two players, including superstar Gilbert Arenas, for drawing guns on each other. So a few fans got excited because of a landmark win ignored the “Authorized Personnel Only” signs. Big deal, right?

Not exactly.

People casually point to the SEC’s rule as being instituted just weeks after the infamous “Palace Brawl” that saw Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons players fight with fans at the Palace at Auburn Hills. But the rule was actually put in place as a result after a University of Georgia fan was accused of punching Florida Gator Matt Walsh after a basketball game.

The policy was quickly put in place for the safety of all parties involved – although the rule falls under the conference’s sportsmanship guidelines. To date, the SEC is the only conference to have such a rule.

And there’s a damn good reason to have such a rule. Let me rephrase that: There’s a hollow reason to have the rule – it’s called public relations. But there’s a far better reason to enforce the rule, and we’re seeing more and more evidence of it.

The Palace Brawl is probably the most egregious spectacle to date, but it’s hardly an isolated incident, nor is the trend limited to pro sports. A year before the SEC saw fit to pass the rule, Nebraska football player Kellen Huston knocked out a celebrating Missouri fan with a sucker punch. Gators basketball player Brandon Powell threw a punch at a Vanderbilt fan who had stormed the court after the Commodores knocked off then-#1 Florida in 2007.

Blount (white stocking cap) being restrained by an Oregon coach

More recently, we watched as officials restrained Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount when he tried to engage several fans, just minutes after Blount punched a Boise State opponent. Even Tuesday night, rumors circulated that Kentucky player DeMarcus Cousins punched a South Carolina fan during the mayhem.

Not every example of fan pandemonium results in violence. Sometimes, it’s just tedious, as it was when Texas Tech fans rushed the field three times before the game was even over in the Red Raiders’ upset of Texas in 2008.

In fact, one of the most famous plays in college football history is considered so in part because of extra people on the field. The Cal-Stanford game in 1982 ended with “The Play”, a series of Cal laterals and Kevin Moen scoring the game-winning touchdown… as the Stanford band scattered from the playing field and end zone.

But more and more, fans on the field or the court can lead to nothing good.

Emotion runs high in athletic contests, and occasional violence can be the result of such passion. When violence occurs between participants, it is quelled quickly and punishment is meted out. It’s called sports justice.

But the more we blur the line between the field and the stands, the more we also blur the line between player and fan. It’s not so much that fans become players, but by invading the players’ realm, they subject themselves to whatever might happen on the field of play. And from here on the couch, any fan that crosses that line, be it alone or with thousands of his closest friends, deserves just about whatever happens to him.

Besides, what can reasonably be expected from this equation:

Several frustrated visiting players who just suffered a crushing defeat, plus

Thousands of delirious fans celebrating a victory, minus

Security necessary to shield the players from the fans or provide safe passage off the court or field?

It’s a recipe for disaster, one that someday will make the Palace Brawl seem like a kindergarten tiff.

Ultimately, precautions must be proactive. A few senior citizens in yellow jackets or a simple rope line, as was used in South Carolina, can’t hold back a wave of fans, no more than they can hold back waves at the shore. More substantial barriers between fans and the playing surface are out, since they devalue all those big money seats down below.

Which means it comes down to security. And what is security but manpower and training? If an athletic department wants to evaluate this by the numbers, they’re one day going to realize that increased security for an hour or two is far less expensive than increasing fines. Or escalating incidents.

Sure, maybe it’s a sign of the times. We’ve taken an innocent act of pure jubilation shared by a team and its fans, and we’ve injected trepidation and fear and violence.

So more conferences need to follow the SEC’s lead and institute rules. And athletic directors need to take this more seriously than South Carolina’s Eric Hyman, who joked that fans were giving him $1 bills to pay the fine. And fans need to remember they’re fans, they bought a ticket to revel in the stands.

Stay where you belong, so monumental victories can remain memorable because of the triumph, not because of what they spawned immediately afterward.

Written by sportsinbriefs

January 28, 2010 at 1:15 am

Briefs Bits

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If there were any moment that underscored the need to change the selection process for the NBA All-Star Game, it’s now. The mere possibility that Allan Iverson and Tracy McGrady could start is appalling, even if it is an event for the fans. Iverson bolted from the Memphis Grizzlies after just three games this season, landing in Philadelphia with the 76ers. Even more embarrassing is McGrady, who played in 46 minutes this season before the Houston Rockets banished him while they try to work out a trade.

Heralded Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, the 21-year-old lefthander who has been clocked at 102 mph, signed a six-year, $30 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds? Cincinnati reportedly outbid the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels, among other teams. The Reds, really?

If you’re ever in need of a healthy chuckle, peruse the injury reports in the NHL. In a sport where an injured player’s weaknesses can easily become targets in a battle on the boards, teams are increasingly hesitant to put a bullseye on even the most obvious injuries. Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Danny Syvret was taken into the boards recently and left the game clutching his shoulder after it was obviously separated. On the report, it’s an “upper body injury”. A player with a “lower body injury” gets knee surgery – and the injury report remains the same. My favorite is the concussion that is labeled an “upper body injury”. Expect the reports to get even more nebulous as teams approach the playoffs, too.

To Dallas Cowboys fans who complain that Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings ran up the score with a meaningless late-game touchdown last week: “Waaaahhhhhh!” If you don’t want the other team to run up the score on you, a more effective approach might be a better defense.

To the Minnesota Vikings: Beware of the long collective memory shared by teams and their fans. Sometime, no matter if it’s next year or in five years, the Cowboys will exact some revenge. Of course, unless it’s a playoff game, the revenge will be meaningless, but at least Dallas will feel better.

Written by sportsinbriefs

January 19, 2010 at 11:08 pm

The Colts are the Spurs, and what is the GBL thinking?

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Thoughts from across the sports world, from the comfort of the couch…

It hit me after the Indianapolis Colts’ workmanlike victory over the Baltimore Ravens: The Colts are the NFL’s San Antonio Spurs of recent vintage. Consider the similarities: Championship-caliber teams that could beat you on either side of the ball. Unquestionable leaders in Peyton Manning and Tim Duncan. Strong supporting casts that recognize the value of being role players.

What makes the two teams so similar, though, is the team-first attitude they both share. Players aren’t clamoring for the ball, the spotlight, or the payday. Every member plays like the success of the team rests on his shoulders, no matter how large or small his perceived role. Championships are won by everyone, and the stars eagerly step out of the limelight to share the glory. And the attitude is shared throughout the organization, instilled in each team by modest coaches who preach that when you play as a team, the result is greater than the sum of its parts.

What else makes them similar? Character. Despite the success each team has had over the last decade, they continue to avoid the trappings of modern athletes. In an era when statistics all too often count arrests along with wins, and sports headlines are littered with stories about who feels slighted and who wants more, the Colts and Spurs have remained drama-free and out of the police blotter.

Machinelike precision. Leadership. Character. What a refreshing concept.

Minor league baseball is well-known for creativity, and independent baseball may push that outside-the-box-but-still-on-a-budget thinking even further. Still, a recent announcement by the Golden Baseball League left me shaking my head that they may be pushing things too far – to the detriment of the league.

The GBL has added teams in Maui, Hawaii, and Tijuana, Mexico, for the 2010 season, becoming the only pro baseball league with teams in three countries. But to call the GBL “far-flung” would be an understatement, especially for a level of ball that is traditionally described as a bus league. Chico, Calif., was a member of the Northern Division – where it was more than 750 miles from its nearest divisional opponent (Victoria, B.C.), and nearly 1,500 miles away from northern outposts Calgary and Edmonton. In the south, a pair of southern California locations (Orange County and Long Beach) were joined by two Arizona clubs and a team in St. George, Utah. Throw a team in Tijuana and add flight to Maui, and how does this league hope to overcome its travel costs to make any money?

In an equally curious move, the GBL has decided to abandon the designated hitter and play with National League rules. With all due respect to the DH nay-sayers, it’s hard enough to find pitchers that can wield a bat at the big-league level. To expect indy league pitchers will be able to do anything more than lay down and die is rather foolish. It might make the GBL unique (from the couch, we can’t recall another independent league that plays without the DH), but no more entertaining than regularly scheduled ritual sacrifices.

Written by sportsinbriefs

January 19, 2010 at 10:25 pm

A Needle, a Gridiron, and the Supremes

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For all the battles grabbing headlines on the court, the ice, and the field, one taking place in a courtroom might have the most lasting impact.

And for a refreshing change, it’s not a criminal court. In fact, it’s the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court.

Arguments were held Wednesday in the case of American Needle v. NFL. The ramifications of the case extend well beyond the merchandise licensing that is at the core of the suit, beyond the NFL itself. In fact, it’s no stretch to say the case’s impact will be felt far outside of the sports world.

The suit could impact not only the sports merchandise you buy, but the tickets you purchase, the games on TV, the players you watch, the stadiums teams play in, the branded video games you crave… even your credit card statements, health care bills, and fast food fix.

At issue is the NFL’s exclusive headwear deal with Reebok, part of a sweeping league-wide contract signed between the two parties in 2001. Prior to that, American Needle had been a licensed supplier of caps for NFL teams.

The manufacturer filed suit in 2004, arguing that the exclusive deal was a violation of antitrust regulations. The NFL consists of 32 independent businesses, American Needle claimed, and any agreement between the organizations that stifled competition was a clear antitrust violation and hurt consumers. The example cited frequently in court documents was a cap that went for $19.99 when American Needle made it, but a few years later went for $30 with a Reebok tag on it.

The NFL countered that the 32 teams operate as one single unit, since no one team can truly exist on its own. The single-unit concept is what allows the league to operate properly and compete with other forms of entertainment, said NFL attorneys.

The suit was tossed in lower courts and appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, and that’s when things got interesting – and dangerous. While American Needle wanted the lower court ruling overturned, the league wants the ruling to be expanded.

See, the NFL believes that it is a single unit in more ways than just peddling headwear. It schedules as a unit, strikes television deals as a unit, agrees to rules of competition as a unit, and negotiates agreements with its primary employees (players) as a unit. As a result, even though it is made up of 32 teams, it’s a single entity, and it shouldn’t be subject to those pesky antitrust regulations.

Outwardly, the NFL has said that such a ruling will provide a convenient shield from frivolous lawsuits, which it considers the American Needle filing to be.

Sensing that the NFL might be on to something here, other sports properties have gotten involved as well. The NBA, NHL, NASCAR – even the NCAA – have filed amicus briefs on the NFL’s behalf. Hey, if the NFL can get a free pass like this, every other league has a great argument for the same treatment. (Major League Baseball, which has had its own antitrust exemption for nearly a century, has steered clear of the case, so as to not disturb its own competitive advantage.)

But freedom from antitrust statutes has wide-ranging impact in the game. Nothing is to say that a league with an antitrust exemption can’t decide to impose a league-wide coaching salary structure. The league would retain total control over franchise locations, even if the team is owned by Al Davis. Since the league engages in revenue sharing, teams could vote to establish a minimum ticket price to maximize revenue. No matter what the issue, from the draft to merchandise to media to franchise sales, leagues with antitrust protection can act with a selfish disregard for everyone, including fans.

Justice Sotomayor easily saw through to the NFL’s transparent goal: “You are seeking through this ruling what you haven’t gotten from Congress: an absolute bar to an antitrust claim.”

Recognizing the danger, most player associations have lined up to file briefs supporting American Needle. Not to be naive, the players don’t care so much if a Reebok hat costs $30 or if skyrocketing ticket prices shut out all but the wealthiest fans. No, they’re worried what a league with an antitrust exemption afforded by the Supreme Court might do to hurt them. While owners might struggle to directly cut player salaries, rules could be enacted that limit player movement or require cumbersome compensation for free agents – both of which would serve to curtail competition for players and indirectly stifle salary growth.

Arguments of Wednesday were at times interesting, amusing, and ill-conceived. American Needle’s arguments were focused on merchandise, the unfortunate focus of its case, one that it is likely doomed to ultimately lose. To the notion that teams are competing independently in the sale of merchandise, Justice Breyer countered that it was unlikely fans are trying to decide between buying a Patriots or a Saints shirt.

Speaking to the merchandise issue, the NFL made a rather silly claim. It argued that league deals, like the Reebok contract, are primarily designed to allow the league to better market the game. A strong unilateral relationship with Reebok strengthens football’s attraction versus other forms of entertainment, spurring television viewership and ticket sales.

In other words, if you believe its attorney, the NFL signed with Reebok not for better or more expensive hats, but because it would increase ticket sales.

Justice Scalia shot this laughable notion down in open court. “The purpose is to make money,” he said. “I don’t think they care whether… [it] promotes the game.”

The NFL delegation was at least smart enough to stay away from labor issues, which would have raised the ire of every union short down to the United Brotherhood of Lemonade Stand Workers. While the NFL Players Association expressed its concern over what a Teflon-coated NFL could do to its players, the league countered that the case has nothing to do with “union issues”.

Of course, that’s true. The case has nothing to do with union issues. What the league will do if it wins has lots to do with the union, however.

Quietly, there has been consternation that the case could have sweeping impact well beyond sports. Any other industry in which independent businesses share a strong common link has its eyes on this case. Health care networks, credit card banks, even fast food chains all share an interest in the outcome. A ruling for American Needle could leave these businesses open to antitrust lawsuits, while a broad victory for the NFL could leave consumers out in the cold. As one media outlet said, with such wide-ranging implications, the suit could have an “unpredictable and unsettling” impact.

So how is it likely to play out? Early indications are that the case is likely to be sent back to the lower court, and the NFL and friends are unlikely to earn their Teflon antitrust shield. It’s likely that American Needle will ultimately lose in the lower court, however.

And what should we, the sports fans, think from the comfort of our couch? If the Supremes shoot down the NFL’s argument, it would be a victory for fans. Sports are based on competition, two teams battling for victory. If one team always had the advantage, the outcome would be a given, and no one would watch. For a game to be attractive to fans, both teams have to have a shot at winning.

In a way, the same holds true off the field. If the league could behave however it liked, with no threat of penalty or retribution, it would likely die. Decisions would alienate fans, players, vendors, and broadcasters, until the league’s only audience would be itself. Any league’s ongoing success is based on an adversarial system, in which all stakeholders provide a series of checks and balances against each other. Though it occasionally results in strikes and other unfortunate circumstances, it also keeps everyone honest – or at least as honest as they can be expected to be.

Written by sportsinbriefs

January 14, 2010 at 3:54 am