By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Jason Collins’ courageous announcement will allow the NBA to showcase itself as an organization of inclusiveness and tolerance.
Never one to let opportunity pass him by, you can bet that David Stern’s league is currently producing every kind of self-congratulatory public-service announcement to coincide with the overwhelmingly-positive national reaction to the news, preparing for Collins to wear his symbolic No. 98 next season.
It’s good business, particularly for a sport that has become more accepting of all kinds of players amid accelerating internationalism. They present the flags of the many home countries at the All-Star Game, so it’s easy to add the rainbow. Watch as the NBA weaves this open-mindedness into the fabric of its own brand.
Thing is, when it comes to acceptance of gay players, the NHL is already way ahead of them.
When the first active pro hockey player comes out, the support structure will have been there for some time, thanks to the “You Can Play” efforts of Patrick Burke, a Flyers scout and the son of Brian Burke, the former GM of Hartford, Vancouver, Anaheim, Toronto and the most recent U.S. Olympic team. Patrick’s openly-gay brother, Brendan, was killed in a car accident in 2010, and he chose to honor his memory by working to create a welcoming atmosphere for a hockey player who happens to be gay.
“You Can Play” was built to change the culture of the locker room and educate fans, using the help of 60 players last year to create videos asking for awareness and understanding. The first was Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, with the others following immediately and enthusiastically.
It’s important to point out this genuine, motivated activism. Burke and others did not coalesce around a pioneering player after the fact, but chose to make difficult inroads beforehand. Their mission statement reads, in part, “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.”
Sounds simple and obvious, but hockey has never been the most progressive of sports.
Credit not only goes to Burke and YCP, but to commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL Players Association who decided to make the partnership with the league official on April 11th. Eighteen days before Jason Collins made news, a major sports league was already committing itself publicly and proudly to “a more inclusive hockey community at all levels.”
They announced LGBT outreach, training and education for players and fans, PSAs, counseling programs, and seminars at the rookie symposiums. After a bitter labor battle pitted Bettman against NHLPA chief Donald Fehr just months ago, the two stood together in affirming the first partnership of this kind for a league, a union, and a gay advocacy group.
While we have spent the last three days reading tweets from NBA players that indicate that its first openly-gay player will have an environment of acceptance, the NHL had been aggressively creating one for itself, and not just quietly behind the scenes, but in the kind of official capacity that seeks to send an important message.
There is nothing at all wrong with the NBA making the most of its chance to rally around Jason Collins, and it will take full advantage of the attention to send all the right messages. Basketball will get to take the lead in the discussion, now, due to his disclosure.
But it’s much more impressive what the NHL has done, just because they wanted to.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.