A Different Sort Of Courage

Logo from the You Can Play Project - www.youcanplayproject.org

While we wait (and wait, and wait) for the NHL to either return or fall apart for the rest of the season, I'm taking a quick break to stand on a different soapbox and talk about why Columbus' hockey community should support the You Can Play Project.

We've reached the time of year where people naturally want to look back at the year that's passed by and talk about what happened. We share our accomplishments, we reflect on shortcomings, and we make plans for all the things we will do better in the year ahead. (Or, if nothing else, plan to fail in different and more interesting ways.)

Instead of talking about the past year for the NHL, the Blue Jackets, or any sort of pro hockey, I want to highlight an organization that has been doing some great work throughout 2012.

The You Can Play Project was founded by Patrick Burke, brother of former Miami University hockey manager Brendan Burke, and partners Brian Kitts and Glenn Whitman. Beginning in March of 2012, they began reaching out to pro athletes, but particularly hockey players, to create an atmosphere of support and acceptance for LGBT athletes, starting with a video that featured, among others, former Jackets captain Rick Nash.

Here's their mission statement:

You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.

You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team's success.

You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete's skills, work ethic and competitive spirit

It's a tough job - professional sports is, sadly, one of the few places in Western society where casual homophobia from players and fans is generally accepted as normal - but they've been working hard, and gathered more and more support from other professional athletes, particularly in the NHL.

R.J. Umberger has taken the pledge. So have his former OSU teammates David Steckel and Ryan Kesler.

But there's a difference between individuals promising to help make a better environment, and organizations doing so. At the time that I write this, only one professional hockey club (the AHL's Toronto Marlies) has openly endorsed You Can Play and made an organizational commitment, though YCP says that 9 other AHL clubs will be coming on board.

In the NCAA, the Miami Redhawks are on board. So are Duke University, George Washington U and a number of other teams.

I salute every athlete, club, and organization that has signed on, but I also feel there's a big gap on that list: Us.

Columbus has one of the largest proportional LGBT communities in the Midwest. Their support from the city includes numerous efforts to promote equal rights and treatment, including domestic partner registries, and our community has been named one of the "Best Gay Cities In America". It's even used as a selling point in attracting LGBT friendly tourism. The LGBT community is a major part of the mix that makes Columbus such an amazing city.

So why, with the exception of a couple of individuals, aren't they being supported by the organizations that represent this city at a national level?

Yes, the Jackets have hosted pride nights, and so have various OSU teams, but committing to treat people with respect and decency shouldn't have to be a special event. Declaring that everyone, regardless of orientation, is equal underneath their jersey should be a given.

By the most recent census, there are at least 34,000 LGBT citizens of Columbus (not counting the suburbs). I would be shocked to find out that none of them are hockey fans. I'd be downright flummoxed to find that none of them followed OSU in some form or another.

I admit that we live in an era where standing up for LGBT rights has been difficult at times, though thankfully that seems to be improving almost daily. I admit that it takes a lot of courage to stand up and be one of the first people or organizations to stand up and say "I believe in this." I admit that there are groups that will, sadly, treat those who endorse You Can Play and like-minded organizations with cruelty, hatred, and prejudice.

But there are many, many reasons why this is an issue that deserves support - not just because it's impacted members of the hockey community, but because this impacts our community, and there are people who live, work, and play in our city every day who deserve and need our support.

I want to encourage the entire hockey community in Columbus to stand up and support the You Can Play Project, from the top of the Blue Jackets organization down to the beeriest beer leaguers in the CAHL, Central Ohio Roller Hockey, and Ohio Street Hockey leagues.

Let's work together to make 2013 a better year for our community, one voice at a time.

Sign the Pledge.

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