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And he's not alone. In 2009, All-America wrestler Hudson Taylor of Maryland competed with a sticker for the Human Rights Campaign—the nation's largest LGBT rights organization—on his headgear, a gesture that led him to speak out and later found Athlete Ally. In November '09, Brendan Burke, the scion of one of the NHL's most respected families, came out publicly. "In the hockey world, that was the day that this fight ended," said Patrick Burke, Brendan's brother and a scout with the Flyers.
Their father, Brian, notoriously tough as a player and the Maple Leafs' general manager at the time, backed his son publicly—and then heartbreakingly, after Brendan died three months later in a car accident. For the next three summers Brian walked in the Toronto gay pride parade. A year ago, with Patrick, he founded the You Can Play Project; more than 100 pro players have since voiced support for gay teammates, whoever they may be. Praise rolled in.
"That whole 'You can't teach old dogs new tricks, that's just my generation' line of excuses is crap," Patrick said in April. "Because once it's someone you care about, once it has touched your life in some way, it's very easy to go through this evolution. Removing antigay language from my vocabulary didn't take practice. It was easy.
"I'm tired of getting credit—and of our family getting credit—for loving Brendan. I'm tired of people saying, 'Oh, he's a great dad' and 'Oh, you're a great brother' because we did the right thing. This should be the standard. This should be the baseline. When your brother comes to you and tells you, 'I'm gay,' if you say anything other than, 'Great, I love you, I don't care,' that's where the problem is."
The NHL's new partnership with You Can Play includes a commitment to integrate LGBT-friendly policies in everything from rookie symposiums to public-service announcements to educational outreach for any player—straight or gay—trying to comes to terms with issues of sexual identity.
"It's wonderful to see the sports world really jumping on board," Patrick Burke said. "The danger is that we almost skipped a step: We went from nobody talking about this in sports to now demanding that everybody in sports talk about this. The homophobic things athletes have said and been vilified for are mostly related to confusion and ignorance. We skipped the step where we sit with athletes and answer those questions."
Still, there are plenty of stories of decency. In January 2011, longtime Boston Herald sportswriter Steve Buckley wrote a column announcing he is gay. That morning he received supportive text messages from Red Sox manager Terry Francona, former pitcher Curt Schilling and infielders Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. Buckley then went on a local radio show, and Bruins legend Bobby Orr—the childhood hero of every Boston male of Buckley's age—called in to back him. A week later Orr called again, on Buckley's private line, to make sure he was good. Two days after that Orr called once more and invited Buckley to watch a Bruins game in a suite. When he arrived, Orr introduced him to all the buddies and corporate types, one by one. "This is my friend Steve Buckley," he said.
"We give these guys very little credit," Buckley said several weeks ago. "We, the media, continue to screw it up because we continue to focus on the shower room and the locker room. In April 1947, Jackie Robinson walked into a room filled with men who had never had black friends or family members they'd admit to. The difference with the openly gay male team athlete is that he's going to walk into a room filled with players who, in large measure, are waiting for him. They're tapping their feet saying, 'Where the hell is this guy?' "
MAYBE THAT'S too optimistic. Maybe a teammate with a religious or conservative bent will find an out gay athlete intolerable. Hudson Taylor speaks to teams from 50 colleges and high schools a year, and said straight athletes still ask "the shower question." More often than you would think, someone also says, "When my coach tells me to stop being a p----, that fires me up. Will this conversation take away from our competitive edge?"
Or maybe a star will be insulted that a gay player of lesser talent is getting more attention; maybe a coach will despise Jason Collins for bringing the nation's reporters crashing into the locker room and making the week, month, season about everything but basketball. Maybe.