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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.

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Written by sportsinbriefs

February 6, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Superstar vs. Enforcer: The rules of the rink

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Thursday night, the Philadelphia Flyers skated to a 2-0 shutout of the New York Rangers, a game that sparked debate throughout the hockey world. (Editor’s note: Before we get to far into this, and in the spirit of full disclosure, let the record show that I am a lifelong Flyers fan.)

No one was arguing about whether the resurgent Flyers are a playoff team, or if goalie Ray Emery is back in form following abdominal surgery. The fact that there were four fights between the fierce rivals wasn’t a surprise, either.

Daniel Carcillo fighting Sean Avery

But fisticuffs were at the core of the controversy – that, and the unwritten code that players in all sports adopt when they put on a uniform. In this case, it was a fight between Philadelphia enforcer Daniel Carcillo and Rangers sniper Marion Gaborik, a leading contender for NHL MVP.

In hockey, fighting is a penalized but still legal element of the game. But while anyone can skate, pass, and shoot, it’s understood that only fighters fight. Leave the other team’s star players alone, unless you want your own stars targeted.

And so the Rangers were all sorts of fired up.

When order was restored and the penalized were escorted to the box, Brandon Dubinsky let fly some unprintable words at Carcillo, prompting off-ice officials to calm both players. Rangers coach John Tortorella turned his verbal abuse towards the Flyers bench and coach Peter Laviolette.

The final whistle did nothing to temper emotions.

“I think it’s disrespectful,” said New York defenseman Marc Staal. “He doesn’t look that smart to me, and he showed it tonight,” quipped goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

Added Tortorella, “There’s simply no honor in that at all. It’s pretty embarrassing.” Later, he sarcastically called Carcillo a “brave guy”.

The one thing these Rangers have completely ignored is this simple fact: Gaborik dropped his gloves first. When the scuffle began in front of the Philadelphia net, Carcillo ended up paired with Gaborik, and the two locked together and spun behind the net. The Ranger forward was the first to drop the gloves and begin swinging… well, maybe flailing is a better term.

So what was Carcillo to do? Wait for a more appropriate opponent to step forward and then engage him? Stand there and take it with a smile?

Laviolette said it best after the game: “Gaborik dropped his gloves first. Danny [Carcillo] can either get punched or drop his and fight.”

The unwritten rule about protecting star players offers one equally unwritten caveat: You can’t protect an opposing star player from himself.

If Gaborik was going to drop the gloves with Carcillo, he knew quite well what he was getting into. After all, Carcillo had twelve fighting majors thus far this season, and he’s led the NHL in penalty minutes each of the last two years. In contrast, Gaborik had one prior fight in 550 career NHL games.

Gaborik slapped at a surprised Carcillo a few times to open the bout. Then the Flyers tough guy lobbed back a few solid punches that sent his opponent to the ice. Once Gaborik fell, Carcillo stopped punching, adhering to another part of the code: A pugilist doesn’t hit an opponent once he’s gone down or he’s defenseless.

Maybe Gaborik figured he could surprise Carcillo. Perhaps he’s tired of getting pushed around, so he thought a well-timed fight could send a message to future opponents. Or maybe he wants to plead temporary insanity.

John Tortorella was fighting mad

The truth of the matter is that all the Ranger vitriol should be directed at each other, particularly New York defenseman Dan Girardi. Girardi was only feet away from his star teammate at the time of the fight, and he did little more than lean over and ask Gaborik if he was OK when the altercation concluded.

Which brings us to another tenet of the code: In an altercation, the willing and able defend their less-combative teammates. In other words, fighters stand up for snipers. New York had to look back little more than a week for a widely-publicized example of how this is done.

On January 12, perpetual pest Steve Downie of the Tampa Bay Lightning coaxed reigning MVP Alex Ovechkin into dropping the gloves. But just as they were about to engage, Matt Bradley, Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals teammate, flew in to fight Downie. The superstar got to play the tough, but his teammates knew where to draw the line.

And perhaps that’s who the Rangers were so angry with Thursday night. Not at Carcillo for picking on their star, and not at the Flyers for cultivating such perceived thuggery. Maybe they were just mad at each other, because no one in that locker room had the stones to stand up for their man.

Sure, now the Rangers are in a collective huff. They say they’ve circled March 14 on their calendar, which is when the two teams meet again, this time at Madison Square Garden.

Lundqvist even went as far as to say, “We will remember this for sure, and he should be ready for it.”

Well the Rangers have nearly two months to decide just who is going to defend their honor, because nobody bothered to do anything more than talk about it Thursday.

Written by sportsinbriefs

January 22, 2010 at 8:53 pm

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