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Athletes work to change the game for LGBTQ

Senior Staff Writer

Published: Friday, February 7, 2014

Updated: Friday, February 7, 2014 00:02

Two weeks ago, 19-year old Conner Mertens came out to his Willamette (Ore.) University football team as bisexual and … nothing happened.

Media outlets like USA Today, Yahoo! Sports, and OutSports told the young man’s story, reporting that he was the first active college football player to admit he was not exclusively heterosexual. A post by Mertens himself was retweeted hundreds of times, and favorited by more than 1,000 users. But, for Mertens, nothing was different. His coach, his teammates, his friends – all of them accepted him. Not a single thing had changed.

The athletic landscape has become much more aware of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) community, and increasingly accepting of it. Jason Collins came out as the first active, gay NBA player in April. Seven LGBTQ athletes from five different countries will be competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, all of them women. Mertens is the most recent in a line of hundreds of sports personalities to come out, but he’s one of the few that did so while competing.

“When athletes like [Mertens] come out, I think it’s great,” Miami University head hockey coach Enrico Blasi said. “I think it means that society is starting, hopefully, to understand that we’re all in this thing at the same time and there really isn’t any difference between any of us.”

The key word there is starting. According to a recent DiversityInc article, nearly one quarter of LGBTQ athletes at the high school level come out as opposed to less than 5 percent of those in college. Having played hockey for Miami in the early 90s and currently serving his 15th season as head coach of his alma mater, Blasi can attest to the unique challenge the collegiate athletic culture presents for those in the LGBTQ community. Programs are more autonomous from their respective universities than their high school counterparts, and the stakes are higher, Blasi said. According to him, competitiveness is at a premium and the intimacy of the locker room setting serves as an incubator for homophobic feelings.

That is why, for LGBTQ sportspersons across the country, former Miami student Brendan Burke’s story continues to echo on the highest echelon of importance.

Brendan was 19 years old when he told his father Brian, an NHL general manager, that he was gay. Brian told him, “Of course, we still love you. This won’t change a thing.”

One year later, Brendan became the hockey team operations assistant at Miami University. The program is known as “The Brotherhood,” and that is not just some gimmicky, media-bestowed calling card. Miami hockey players past, present and future are expected to embody the qualities of commitment, excellence and acceptance that Blasi’s teams have come to represent. In the aftermath of the RedHawks’ 2009 NCAA Finals run, “Burkie,” as the team affectionately called him, came out to the team, a group he considered family. It was not an issue. It did not matter. They loved him for who he was: “A great guy, personable and caring … a blessing,” as Blasi told ESPN’s John Buccigross. When Burkie went public in November of 2009, he became a pioneer in the fight against homophobia in sports. It was a battlefield on which Burkie would hardly set foot.

On Feb. 5, 2010, Brendan Burke was killed in an automobile accident that cut short not only his campaign for equality, but a promising life and career in hockey management. His father and older brother, Patrick, were quick to pick up the banner and lead the charge for LGBTQ athletic acceptance. Patrick helped create the You Can Play Project (YCPP) in March 2012, a realization of his brother’s dream. YCPP was founded on a simple premise: “If you can play, you can play.” After two years in operation, dozens of organizations at the professional, collegiate and amateur levels of dozens of sports have pledged their support.

“The time was right to have this discussion,” Brian Kitts, a co-founder of YCPP and a sports marketing professor at Denver University, said. “It’s in locker rooms, it’s in venues where there are fans. It’s in high schools and colleges. People hear about it and it’s an easy thing to get behind. It’s all about sports. We’ve always said that if you’re a good athlete, that’s what you should be judged on, not your religion, your race, your sexual orientation or your gender identity.”

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