Canes say all athletes - gay or straight - on 'one team'

calexander@newsobserver.comMay 11, 2013 

— The videos are short but the message is powerful.

The public service announcements, made by both the Carolina Hurricanes and Duke University, support the You Can Play Project, an advocacy organization seeking an end to homophobia in sports.

Hurricanes players Tuomo Ruutu, Kevin Westgarth, Tim Brent and Tim Gleason appear in Carolina’s video. “Any race, gay or straight, we are all one team,” Ruutu says.

The Hurricanes are the first professional team in North Carolina to support gay and lesbian inclusivity through You Can Play, a Denver-based nonprofit. The National Hockey League and NHL Players Association announced last month a joint partnership with You Can Play, with the motto “Hockey is for Everyone.”

“People’s right to choose whatever in their lives is important. It’s important enough for the Hurricanes to support it,” Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. “For people to have to carry certain things around in their life and not feel comfortable sharing it with other people, to me it isn’t right.

“You don’t have to agree with everybody with what they do in their life, their different choices in their life. But everybody has that right.”

Duke produced its video last summer. Coaches, athletes and athletic department members participated, including athletic director Kevin White and women’s basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie. The Canes and Duke videos can be found at www.youcanplayproject.org.

“Teamwork and excellence extend far beyond sexual orientation,” White says in the Duke video.

Jason Collins, a veteran NBA center, recently became the first active major-league athlete to publicly say he was gay. Collins, 34, used Sports Illustrated as his forum in a cover story titled “The Gay Athlete.” Most have applauded Collins’ decision to go public.

“Unquestionably. I think he was incredibly brave to be the first one,” Westgarth said Friday. “Hopefully, every day, every year there will be more progress. It has been interesting to see the support (Collins) has gotten in the NBA. Hopefully everyone will be more accepting in the future and others will feel more comfortable in coming out.”

Collins told Sports Illustrated he had wrestled with the decision but that the bombings at the Boston Marathon last month spurred him to finally come forward. He said he realized he could be booed or jeered by some NBA fans next season, but said he expected to have the support of his teammates.

“Groundbreaking step”

The You Can Play project advocates the equal treatment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender athletes, coaches and fans. One of the co-founders is Patrick Burke, the son of former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and older brother of the late Brendan Burke.

Brendan Burke, who was a video coordinator and student manager for the Miami University hockey team in Ohio, raised awareness for gay and lesbian athletes in 2009 when he said he was gay in an ESPN interview. His death in a car wreck in 2010, at age 21, was the catalyst for the You Can Play project.

The NHL and NHL Players Association announced the partnership with You Can Play on April 11, which Burke called a “groundbreaking step.”

Soon after the announcement, the Canes’ Westgarth, who has been active in NHLPA matters, said, “Hopefully we can become a beacon for other sports. Hopefully other leagues and organizations will follow us.”

For now, the NHL is the only major league to partner with You Can Play, although there are several pro teams and colleges supporting the project.

Duke, UCLA, Ohio State, Cincinnati, Princeton and Ohio’s Miami University are among the institutions to produce You Can Play videos. Professional teams include the Portland Pirates, Toronto Marlies and Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League and DC United and Toronto FC of Major League Soccer.

Individual NHL players such as defenseman Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins and forward Jason Pominville of the Minnesota Wild have taken part in You Can Play videos.

“We do not reach out directly and ask for support, and prefer to be more of a grass-roots organization,” Burke said.

Positive feedback

The Duke video was produced last year after the university contacted Burke, said Leslie Barnes, the school’s director of student-athlete development.

“We had seen their videos online and decided as a department that they were basic, powerful and straight-forward,” Barnes said. “It was the avenue we wanted to go.”

Burke held a panel discussion in February with Duke coaches and freshman athletes. He said he acts as a straight moderator on the panel for three gay athletes who “share their story.”

“Duke is one of the premier universities in the world,” Burke said. “It’s known as a basketball powerhouse athletically but the school excels in all areas. We’re hoping other schools aspire to be like Duke in taking a stand.”

The You Can Play video, Barnes said, has been shown during the university’s freshman and parent orientations.

“The feedback has been awesome,” Barnes said. “We’re far from perfect and not 100 percent are onboard, but it’s being embraced as part of the culture.”

Cricket Lane, assistant athletic director for student-athlete development at UNC, said a You Can Play video is being planned as a summer project by the athletic department.

Lane said UNC already has produced a video supporting the It Gets Better Project, created to encourage and inspire gay and lesbian youth. North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham and women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance appear in the video along with athletes and other athletic department members.

“We’ve always addressed these issues and others such as diversity with our student-athletes, and have a lot of conversations on the issues during the year,” Lane said. “We work closely with the LGBTQ center and make our athletes aware of all the resources available to them.”

Tonya Washington, assistant athletic director for student-athlete development and community relations at N.C. State, said Justine Hollingshead, the director of the university’s GLBT Center, and others meet with members of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee once a month to discuss issues.

Washington said two or three representatives from each sports team attend the meetings, then share the information with teammates.

Hollingshead also has met with the Wolfpack coaching staffs, Washington said.

Barnes and others agree it’s one thing to say, another to do. As the Canes’ Westgarth said, a real test may come when there is a gay or lesbian athlete in your locker room – when you have a Jason Collins on your team.

“It’s very easy to talk and give lip service to it but I think my experience in talking to (NHL players) is very positive,” Westgarth said. “I don’t see there being a problem to it. I don’t care. It’s kind of like if he’s good enough to play here and help us win, I don’t care. He’s a teammate. Everybody on the team would fight for a teammate, in any respect.”

Burke said he has talked with Collins since the Sports Illustrated story, congratulating and thanking him for his decision to come out as a gay athlete.

“What he did was unbelievable,” Burke said. “Whether this benefits us or any other group, it’s just great what he did, to step up and be the first.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945 Twitter: @ice_chip

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service