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You Can Play project seeks to end bullying in sports

pflag panel
Photo by Kris Duryea
Former Minnesota Viking Esera Tuaolo, at center, participates in "Cultivating Respect" panel. “Whenever homosexuality would come up in the locker room or anywhere else, it was hateful,” he recalled.

By his senior year at Breck High School, Nick Kleidon had painted himself into a closet. As captain of the hockey team, he was a ringleader of its rowdy, macho culture.

And he was as quick as any other player to use the word gay as a slur — more so, in fact, because he had something to hide. Years of praying had failed to make him straight.

“Everything is gay, everything,” Kleidon recalled. “If you do something stupid you’re a fag. Everyone says it all the time. And it’s like, how am I ever going to come out in this?”

He told a couple of friends before he told the team. “Coming out on a hockey team, you have to be able to laugh at things,” he said. “You can’t be like, Oh my God, you said the G word, I’m telling.”

A supportive culture

The locker room culture’s taunting and jibing didn’t stop, but none of it was aimed at him. In fact, Kleidon’s teammates told him they’d “kick the crap” out of anyone who gave him a hard time.

No one did. [VIDEO] Breck has a supportive culture and a strong student gay-straight alliance (GSA). Between 70 percent and 80 percent of students participate in at least one sport.

“Our athletic philosophy reflects our school philosophy,” said John Bellaimey, Breck’s chaplain and adviser to its GSA. “We are really obsessed with sportsmanship. … We want to win, but we’re very interested in character building and honor.”

“That made my coming out 100 percent easier,” Kleidon, now a freshman at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., told the audience at a recent panel on anti-LGBT bullying in athletics. “The locker room at college? That’s going to need a little work.”

Kleidon talked about his experience as part of the Invisible Athlete Forum, a joint undertaking of PFLAG Twin Cities, GForce Sports and the You Can Play Project, a new campaign to draw attention to bullying in sports at all levels.

The forum was the main event at PFLAG’S second “Cultivating Respect” conference on ensuring safe school climates. In addition to Kleidon, former Minnesota Viking Esera Tuaolo and former University of California Berkeley Division 1 Rower Becca Lindquist talked about the pressures faced by LGBT athletes.

The strain of hiding 

Players who are not open about their sexual orientation have to live with the strain of hiding it — a burden that hampers performance, among other things.

“Whenever homosexuality would come up in the locker room or anywhere else, it was hateful,” recalled Tuaolo, who announced that he is gay in 2003, after leaving the NFL.

When he played for the Vikings a rumor came up about Troy Aiken. His teammates “went around the room saying, ‘You’re a fag,’ or ‘You must be a fag,’” he said. “I was just sitting there shaking.”

Those who are out feel constant pressure to perform at peak levels, lest someone suggest their identity fueled a loss. Enough so that even in women’s sports in liberal Berkeley, it took Lindquist a long time to be honest with her teammates.

“Before I tell them I’m gay I better be a hell of a rower,” she said. “I had better be the best person I can be.”

Inspired by brother

You Can Play was founded by Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, son of Toronto Maple Leaves General Manager Brian Burke and brother of the first openly gay National Hockey League player, the late Brendan Burke.

When Brendan came out to his family in 2007, Patrick didn’t believe him. “In our house, you swear on the Stanley Cup,” he told the forum, which took place earlier this month at Hamline University. “I made my brother swear on the Stanley Cup.”

In 2010, two months after he came out to the public, Brendan Burke was killed in a car accident. Patrick Burke vowed to keep his memory alive by working to make things easier for the next generation of gay and lesbian athletes.  

Since then, the effort has gained the support of all of the major pro leagues, and a number of players have recorded videos that began broadcasting during televised sporting events last year. Its Minnesota voice is Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck.

Manual offers guidance

In coming weeks, You Can Play will publish a playbook for coaches, players and administrators. Available for free on the group’s website, the short manual will offer guidance for dealing with athletes coming out at all ages.

“There are millions of them out there,” said Burke. “Forty-seven percent of gay high schoolers are athletes.”

Because few pro athletes are out publicly and even fewer of those are actively playing, there aren’t a lot of role models, he continued. And until You Can Play was launched no one was engaged in outreach to coaches and athletic departments.

“They’re starting to realize there’s an issue,” Burke said. “There’s a new, younger group of coaches and a new, younger generation of athletes. And we’re finally getting the issue in the media.”

Little resistance

With the pros on board, resistance has been scant. The Burke family’s deep roots in sports certainly help, but so does a strategy that doesn’t paint anyone, socially conservative fan or locker-room tough, as a bigot.

“When I present I talk about how I used to use all of those words,” explained Burke. “I’ve said all of them and loudly, and I thought it was cool. And then your brother comes out. We call it the holy s—t moment.”

The group isn’t interested in changing locker rooms’ competitive atmosphere so much as co-opting it, Burke explained.

“If you can make an athlete feel safe in their sport, you’re gonna get a better athlete,” said Burke. “Put it in wins and losses. They’ll get it.”

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