When he was 12 years old, Patrick Burke knew what he wanted to do with his life.
Patrick, the second-oldest of Brian Burke’s six children — including Brendan, who sadly lost his life in 2010 when the car he was driving slid out of control on a snow-slicked Indiana highway — is the ideal prototype for a modern hockey executive: Passionate about the game, enlightened, articulate. And he’s got obvious pedigree.
For seven years, he’s been a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s also one year away from finishing a degree at the New England Law School in Boston. And, as the loving brother of a young man who’d come out as gay shortly before his death, Patrick’s perspective has been enriched by tragedy. That is Brendan’s public legacy, to awaken in Patrick — and Brian — awareness of the damage caused by homophobia in the sports world. It spurred Patrick to launch You Can Play, an advocacy initiative that promotes inclusion of gay, lesbian and transgendered athletes in sports through education, shining a light. To their credit, dozens of NHL players immediately offered their support, some of them appearing in public service ads and all, via their high wattage alignment, spreading the message — as Patrick does frequently at university campus talk forums — that, if you can play, you should play; that sports must always aspire to inclusion.
Blue Jay shortstop Yunel Escobar clearly never got the email. Whether out of shallowness, cultural blindness or sheer idiocy, Escobar plunged the Jays into scandal and embarrassment with the hurtful slur written on his eye black during a game last week. The Cuban-born ballplayer, now tugging at his forelock apologetically, has much to learn, as do the Jays, since no one in the clubhouse — not manager, not teammates — thought to intervene, allegedly never even noticed what was so blatantly, cheekily, printed on Escobar’s face.
“I’d like to think I can speak to athletes about this issue and educate them because I do have a foot in both camps — as a fairly active ally of the LGBT community and someone who is actively involved in the sports community. I like to think I can talk to an athlete on his level and try to break this down into terms they’ll understand.’’
Certainly that’s a more useful approach than joining the pitchfork brigade unsatisfied with the three-game suspension levied against Escobar by the Jays, his forfeited salary of about $ 92,000 going to You Can Play and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
Make no mistake; Patrick was angered by what Escobar did. “I’m upset this incident even occurred. I’m annoyed. It’s 2012 and we shouldn’t be dealing with stuff anymore. The gay population of Toronto shouldn’t have to deal with this stuff anymore. But at the end of the day, we have to take a deep breath and figure out how we can get to an endpoint that’s going to actually do some good.
“The best outcome is, Yunel becomes educated on this issue and become a sincere friend to the community. The Blue Jays become more educated and show their support for Toronto’s gay population. And the gay population gets new allies who can have an important cultural role in showing stuff like this will not be tolerated in baseball. That way everybody gains.
“If we yell and scream and call Escobar names and kick him out of baseball and ban him for life, would that be emotionally satisfying in the short term? Yeah, probably. But long term, what’s that going to do for his attitude towards the gay community? Is that going to turn him into an ally or is that going to make him more resentful? The guys on the Blue Jays, who are his friends, who’ve just lost a teammate, is that going to make them more forgiving or more resentful? The ideal outcome is one where everybody wins.’’
To some extent, Patrick Burke understands the casual meanness that Escobar demonstrated. Growing up, he too used words like “fag.’’
“I did, all the time, and it’s one of the great embarrassments of my life. I don’t think I would ever have considered myself homophobic. It was just a word that people used. But I regret it.’’
When Brendan — student-manager for the Miami (Ohio) University hockey team — disclosed his homosexuality, Patrick didn’t at first believe him, had his brother swear “on the Stanley Cup’’ that he was telling the truth. “I had to have a serious sit-down and apology session with him.’’
So he knows about unintended consequences, about remorse and atonement. “My experience growing up as an athlete is part of the reason why I tend to be more forgiving of other athletes. If you want to kick everyone out of sports who has every used a homophobic slur, then I’ve got to retire and we need a new president for You Can Play.
“Until you’re really exposed to the LGBT community — which I’ve been lucky enough to do through my brother and now this work — you don’t fully understand what they go through and what those words mean. I can guarantee, since my brother came out, except in a teaching context, a homophobic slur has never passed my lips. I know a lot of athletes who are in similar situations. We’ve had NHL players call us since we launched and say, ‘I just want you to know I’ve got a lesbian sister or a gay uncle, whatever, and I used to say those words but now I don’t anymore.’ ’’
Only 29 years old, Patrick was the most mature sports personage on the scene in recent days and would certainly be a welcome addition, professionally, as a full-time member of a certain NHL club. He laughs at the suggestion. By design, Patrick has steered clear of his father’s teams. “You’ve got to do it on your own. You can’t just be Brian Burke’s son. At some point, you have to build your own reputation. I went out on my own to do that.’’
Brian Burke agrees with that approach. “Philadelphia has been very good to Patrick,’’ he told the Star. “I didn’t want his first full-time job to be with me.’’
Patrick is well on the way to establishing his organizational sports bona fides. Fear of nepotism — being accused of it — shouldn’t prevent Brian Burke from considering his son as an addition to the Leaf staff. Of course, he can’t even muse about it aloud because Patrick has one year left on his contract with the Flyers.
He’s got some of his dad’s mojo, too. On his Twitter account, in response to somebody who’d made a stupid and ill-informed remark about Brendan (the thread since deleted), Patrick fired back: “My brother died in a car crash, you f— dips–t.’’
Patrick Burke is his father’s son and good on him.
“I am very proud of my Paddy,’’ says his pop. “The way he’s growing, I may end up working for him!’’