The hockey world was touched by the story of Brendan Burke, the son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, this past December when ESPN.com ran a touching piece about his relationship with his father and his homosexuality.
Brendan passed away Friday from injuries suffered during a car accident in snow-ravaged Indiana. He was 21 years old.
Brendan's bravery was not encapsulated just by the fact that he came out to his rugged father Brian, but also in the political and social ramifications his coming out caused in his own life and the world of sport. Brendan wasn't just the son of a hockey icon; he also worked on the staff of the Miami University of Ohio's men's hockey team, so he encountered these issues every single day of his professional life.
It's no secret that homosexuality in sports is a topic that simply isn't discussed comfortably. It's an issue that we haven't yet figured out how to tackle in our society, and because of that, those like Brendan who are victims of abuse either directly or indirectly on a daily basis, are often times not brave enough to be open with their lifestyle.
But what many people simply don't have the courage to do, Brendan embraced with open arms. In early November of last year, a writer at USA Today and a former hockey player named Justin Bourne penned an article about the closeted nature of homosexuality in hockey and the rampant display of homophobia that overwhelms it's locker rooms.
In my days as a hockey player, I did nothing but contribute to hockey's culture of homophobia and prejudice against gays. I used gay slurs more times than I'd like to admit. Six months after I left my last professional locker room, I felt a twinge of regret, followed by a full-out, stomach punch of regret. And by the time I finished the first draft of this column, I was disgusted with myself.
Brendan read Bourne's column and reached out. In an interview with Yahoo!'s Puck Daddy, Bourne said that Brendan sent him an email sharing his story, saying that he appreciated what Bourne had to say. The writer then asked Brendan if he could share his story. He agreed, but soon after he received the opportunity to take his story to the pages of ESPN.com. The idea of more eyes seeing the story engaged Brendan.
He not only opted to take his hardship-filled story -- and therefore the story of thousands of people in the sporting world -- to the media, but he actually decided to have it published on a platform where more people would see it. The word bravery, it seems, doesn't do Brendan justice.
The results of his bravery are not yet complete. It's only been a few months since his story became widely known, but by going public with it, he put a human face on an issue that deeply pains people every single day. The love that he and his father showed each other in public was truly heartwarming, forcing us to ask that if the gruff, aggressive, truculent Brian can accept a gay son, then why can't anybody?
Brendan may be gone now, but his father's love for him regardless of his sexual orientation and regardless of his humanely presence on Earth still eclipse all the hatred that gay people in sports suffer through everyday. Their example will continue to help to transcend the hatred and make the hockey world a safe place for all people.