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On the You Can Play Project or, Why I Think it's Important for the Flames to Speak Up

Instead of having another go at Flames management for you know, poor management, I've decided to look at another area where I think the organization is lacking, from a more personal, social perspective.

Not too long ago, events surrounding the Alberta provincial election reminded me why the fight for LGBT rights and against discrimination is not yet over, and why the You Can Play project, pioneered by Patrick and Brian Burke exists and needs representation here in Calgary.

I don't often like to get political in this space and I'm probably going to take some heat for it, as I know that this is not the place for it and politics and sports do not typically mingle well, but the promotion of a prevailing type of masculinity and the barriers inherent to open and rewarding participation in professional sports by LGBT athletes are issues that also need to be addressed at a higher level.

A few weeks ago in the campaign leading up to the Alberta provincial election, a blog post that a candidate, an evangelical pastor in Edmonton, wrote in June of last year bubbled up to the surface of the Internet. The post read as a plea for people not to accept gays and lesbians the way they are, and rather, that gay people should alter a core part of who they are and the way they live their lives, both publicly and privately, lest they be subject to eternal damnation. While not explicitly condoning what was said, the leader of the party he was running for dismissed concerns about the nature of the comments and said that the post was written nearly a year ago before her candidate became a political figure and that the views expressed were in keeping with his religious beliefs.

Then last night, a story about prejudices against gay and transgender students at a Calgary private school came to light. Students and former students at the school said they experienced resistance when attempting to establish a pride club, when striving to be recognized as a transgendered individual, or even when trying to stand up against bullying and homophobia.

As Canadians, we can sometimes get complacent. We tend to take advantage of the fact that the law that governs this country guarantees the legality of same-sex marriage as well as freedom of expression, religion, and association and attempts to protect its citizens from exposure to undue hatred and discrimination. But the fact remains that the comments in the aforementioned stories (whether religiously based or not) were still prejudiced, discriminatory, and very nearly hateful, and are indicative of an attitude that has not yet wholly vanished from any one segment of society, including the hockey community.

This is where the You Can Play project comes in.

The project was founded on the principles of combatting prejudice against LGBT athletes and fighting casual homophobia (like the use of gay slurs on the ice or in the dressing room) in hockey. Building on the work of the late Brendan Burke, it has received many accolades from the hockey community at different levels. Players like former Flames Dion Phaneuf and Brandon Prust have appeared in videos alongside other big names like Steven Stamkos, Rick Nash, Duncan Keith, Henrik Lundqvist, Daniel Alfredsson, and Claude Giroux, reinforcing the message that "if you can play, you can play," regardless of sexual orientation.

I rarely do any of this "calling out" business here; I usually leave that to those who are more articulate, objective, and confident writers, but I find myself somewhat dumbfounded by the lack of public support for the project from the Flames organization and their silence on the subject altogether.

Especially considering the events discussed above, LGBT players and fans in Alberta deserve players and personnel who strive to make local rinks and professional arenas alike safer places, free of fear and hatred; they deserve to have players to look up to, players who remind them that their gender identity or sexuality does not define their ability to play hockey or do anything else, for that matter. They deserve it just as much as members of LGBT communities in Toronto, Tampa Bay, Chicago, New York, Ottawa, and Philadelphia do.

There are a variety of other noble causes that the Calgary Flames organization and its players support, and I commend them for it; I am not looking to promote one of those causes above all others, but if someone like Jarome Iginla can work to remove barriers to participation in organized sports for low-income athletes, why can't he do the same for LGBT athletes? And if not him, then why not someone, anyone, else in the organization?

I see no reason why the message of the You Can Play project, a message of tolerance, diversity, acceptance, and inclusiveness, is one that cannot be adopted and promoted by the Flames. I believe it can and it should. I'm sure some people will disagree for a multitude of reasons, one of which will probably be whether or not, on a larger scale, it really is the role of a professional sports team to be a bastion of equality and to work towards certain social goals or causes, but that is material for another post entirely.

Maybe drawing enough eyes to a post like this will help to advance the message of You Can Play, but I think it might take action on a larger scale to combat inaction by an organization that operates as such a powerful force in the community on an issue that, in my opinion, should not be so divisive.

Maybe some day it won't be.

(For more information on the You Can Play project and similar efforts, contact someone from the team here, read Raw Charge's excellent interview with Patrick Burke, or check out Hockey Against Hate.)