I've been thinking a lot lately about Brendan Burke and Tyler Clementi, two young men who died seven months apart in 2010.
Clementi was just three weeks into his freshman year at Rutgers University that September when he learned his roommate not only used a webcam to spy on him and another man, but sent out Twitter and text messages alerting and urging others to watch when the man returned to visit Clementi two nights later.
When Clementi found out, he jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. He was 18 years old.
Burke, 21, died along with a passenger earlier that year when the SUV Burke was driving slid out of control on a desolate stretch of Indiana highway and into the path of an oncoming truck.
Like Clementi, Burke was gay and had only recently come out to his friends and family. His dad, Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke, not only accepted his son and told him he loved him, but promised he’d march with Brendan in the Gay Pride parade in Toronto.
As for Brendan’s friends, many of them were players on the hockey team at Miami of Ohio, where Brendan was the student manager and Rico Blasi is the coach.
“When he told me basically his secret I was like, ‘Thank goodness it’s nothing serious!’” said Blasi. “I told him I really didn’t care, and he was part of our family and that was his choice and it doesn’t change the way we feel about him.”
The concept of family isn’t just a word with Blasi and his team. The RedHawks proudly refer to themselves as “The Brotherhood,” and their one-for-all, all-for-one approach, to hockey and life, is the cornerstone of the program.
Bolstered by the support from his father and Blasi, Brendan had the strength and confidence to tell the guys on the team. Pat Cannone was the first to hear the news.
“I don’t care, Burkie,” Cannone responded. “I don’t care at all. You’re a great friend. This has no bearing on anything or how we feel about you.”
The rest of the guys felt the same way. And it is their understanding, compassion and empathy that is the essence of You Can Play (www.youcanplayproject.org), a noble project whose bold mission is “dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.”
The co-founder of the initiative is Brendan’s brother Patrick, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, who readily concedes that, before his brother revealed he was gay, Patrick had casually used that word as an insult—like millions of other kids around the world have been doing for way too long.
Of course, we adults aren’t exactly immune as far as contributing to the lengthy history of insensitivity, intolerance and seemingly innocuous banter—in and out of locker rooms—on this particular topic.
Now, eight NHL players, including Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks and Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators, are appearing in public service messages on behalf of You Can Play, joining the drive to end homophobia in sports.
Thirty-five more NHL players have committed their support. And, slowly but surely, attitudes are changing: A 2006 survey in Sports Illustrated concluded that nearly 80 percent of NHL players would support a gay teammate.
In 2010, Brent Sopel of the Blackhawks showed up with the Stanley Cup at Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade. And last year, ex-Ranger Sean Avery was an outspoken advocate for a marriage equality bill in New York.
“There are gay men in professional hockey,” says Brian Burke. “We would be fools to think otherwise. And it's sad that they feel the need to conceal this.”
Hopefully, with time, they won’t have to. And hopefully, initiatives like You Can Play will continue to change hearts and minds and attitudes—not only in sports, but everywhere.
Which brings us back to the tragic story of Tyler Clementi, a shy and quiet kid who played violin and was trying to figure out his place in the world.
Last week his Rutgers roommate Dharun Ravi, 20, was convicted on all of the 15 charges he faced in what a jury in his trial determined was a hate crime. He’ll be sentenced in May. Some of the charges carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
Two young lives, ruined.
And all I could think of, after reading about the trial, was what if someone was there for Tyler Clementi when those tweets and texts started flying around, in the same way Rico Blasi and Pat Cannone were there for Brendan Burke when he came to them with a burden he could no longer bear?
Would that have changed anything? We’ll never know. All we do know is the response Brendan received was extraordinary—and that’s a tribute to Blasi and the benevolent power of The Brotherhood.
But the response was also sadly unusual, which is why Tyler Clementi paid the ultimate price. And why the message of You Can Play is so vital—for a kid on skates, sneakers or cleats.
Or even for one who plays violin.