The NHL has taken steps toward creating a positive atmosphere for gay athletes and could be the first of the four major pro sports in North American to have an active player come out. / Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports
Locker rooms, on one level, are really nothing more than giant closets, places for athletes to hang up their clothes. So how come no active gay male athlete has come out of any of the cavernous closets of North America's four major team sports?
The day is coming when that will happen, maybe even some day soon. And leagues are working publicly, as well as behind the scenes, on how all of that might unfold.
Thursday the NHL took a public step toward inclusion when it announced a formal partnership with You Can Play, an advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring equality and respect for all athletes regardless of sexual orientation.
"Our league is ready for this and our players are ready for this," Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke told USA TODAY Sports. "The culture of the sport, when it comes to LGBT issues, is so far ahead of the other sports that I have no doubt that there will be openly gay athletes in the NHL in the near future."
Burke is the son of longtime NHL executive Brian Burke and co-founder of the year-old You Can Play, which will work with the NHL and the NHL Players' Association to enable players to seek counseling or ask questions on matters of sexual orientation on a confidential basis through the NHL's Behavioral Health Program.
Other leagues are also taking steps. The NFL's, NBA's and MLB's collective bargaining agreements ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league's rookie symposiums will include sessions on inclusion and tolerance. He also said NFL senior vice president of player engagement Troy Vincent met last week with three organizations representing the LGBT community, including You Can Play, as part of ongoing dialogue.
Should an NFL player or players come out, "Our league and team security people would be ready to monitor any kind of public reaction that might not be appropriate, including scrubbing social media" for potential threats, Aiello said. "We would assist the player in dealing with any adverse public reaction of any type, if there is any. Hopefully there wouldn't be and it would be a non-issue, which it should be."
The NBA has partnerships with the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and unveiled multiple public service announcements in 2011 to address anti-gay language and anti-LGBT bullying. NBA spokesman Michael Bass said sessions on LGBT issues are part of Team Awareness Meetings and rookie orientation.
"This has been our policy for some time now," Bass said, "and we are in full support of the NHL's actions here."
All of which leaves open the question of how soon male gay athletes might come out in North America's major team sports. Toronto Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk said he thinks Thursday's announcement means that day is sooner than later.
"It hasn't happened yet, but this kind of partnership could make someone comfortable enough to want to come out," van Riemsdyk told USA TODAY Sports. "We are on the right path for something like that happening."
Patrick Burke says too much media emphasis is placed on when it might happen, even as he lays groundwork for it to happen.
"I think the one thing that gets lost in the shuffle in all this media stuff is that there are real people behind this," he said. "This is their life and this is their struggle, this is their livelihood, this is their career. People say, 'Oh, you should come out,' but this is how guys pay for their kids' college. This is important.
"And I think too often we talk about this in the abstract and people lose sight of the fact that we've got athletes in professional sports right now who are struggling with this and are afraid of being discovered. And too often we talk about these guys in the abstract like they don't exist. In a weird way, we are talking about the fact they do exist while making it seem like they don't, by not considering how what we say might affect them."
Burke is careful to say that he will never comment on whether he has spoken with active gay athletes, but he said he has asked retired gay athletes about what active gay athletes might be thinking these days.
"And they're all saying the same thing," Burke said. "If they're close, all this media hype could do one of two things. It could be the nudge they need to take that step and come out. Or it could push them so deep in the closet so they'll never come out."
Patrick Burke's brother Brendan came out in 2009 when he was manager of the Miami (Ohio) men's hockey team. He died in a car accident in Indiana in 2010. Patrick Burke later wrote a tribute to his brother for leading gay sports web site OutSports.com, which included the phrase: "If you can play, you can play."
Patrick Burke decided those words neatly encapsulated his broader idea of inclusiveness - that only ability matters. The board of his You Can Play organization includes his father, Brian, former general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Patrick Burke believes his father's standing in the NHL helped to advance LGBT causes in the league.
"He is annually ranked as one of the most influential guys in hockey," Patrick Burke said. "He hunts, and chews tobacco, all these stereotypical masculine things. So for people to know that Brian Burke, who vehemently supports fighting in hockey, for him to say that he'd be happy to have a gay player and he was happy to have a gay son, I do think that helps."
It also helps that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman knew Brendan Burke well as a child when his father was one of Bettman's vice presidents.
"The strong feelings that Patrick has stem from how much he and his family loved his brother," Bettman told USA TODAY Sports. "They look back on things in his life that could have been different. They want to make it better for anybody who is part of the LGBT community who is looking to do things in life and is worried whether or not they will be included and feel welcome."
Bettman says there is no way to predict when the NHL's first active gay player will come out, "but I was having a conversation with Patrick. We were talking about his brother and what he said to me, which was most poignant, was: 'I hope the next generation wouldn't have to deal with some of the things that my brother had to deal with.'"
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr doesn't take any particular pride in the NHL being first with this sort of formal agreement.
"I would hope at some point this won't be a big story," he told USA TODAY Sports. "You shouldn't get extra credit for doing the right thing."
Cyd Zeigler is a manager of OutSports.com who covers these issues on a daily basis. He thinks the ideal time for an athlete in a team sport to come out is during the offseason, when there would be less disruption for a team.
"The right time is always when the athlete is ready to do it - period, full stop," Zeigler told USA TODAY Sports. "I don't think the team's desires should ever be primary to the athlete's needs, but they're a consideration. And if an athlete can work in conjunction with a team and figure out what the best time for both of them is, that's the right time.
"If an athlete was ready 10 years ago, it would have been fine then. It's fine if they come out now. I try not to get too stuck in talking about if 2013 is the right time because sports is ready. Whether sports or a team or a league is ready is completely irrelevant: The most important thing is when that athlete is ready."
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz
Copyright 2013 USATODAY.com
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