We are judged by what we finish, not by what we start.” #2013
Chosen by fellow fellows as the class speaker, Barry Conrad managed to bring the audience to both laughter and tears in a memorable speech at VFA Training Camp’s Closing Ceremony.
For our last challenge at Venture for America’s Training Camp, we were asked to create value for the start-up companies that we will be starting at in just a few short weeks. Over the weekend, we all worked hard to create some type of meaningful value for our placement companies and passed in our final products on Tuesday morning.
At the same time, though, I was doing my best to create value for an entirely separate organization, the You Can Play Project. You Can Play, “dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation,” operates under the simple assumption that if you can play, you can play. Put simply, athletes should be judged by what they contribute to their team’s success and nothing else, and the You Can Play Project has set out to spread that message to every team, locker room, and spectator in the world of sport.
To understand You Can Play, you must first understand the story of Brendan Burke, a Miami (Ohio) University student who passed away in a car crash in 2010 at the age of 21, but left behind an inspiring legacy. In December 2007, Brendan revealed to his family that he was gay (Brendan’s father, Brian Burke, is the General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and was the man responsible for assembling the 2010 US Olympic Hockey Team that took home a silver medal in Vancouver). Five months later, while working as a student manager for Miami’s hockey team, he came out to the team’s players and coaching staff. There was none of the backlash, teasing, or name-calling you might expect from college students, especially in an environment like a hockey locker room. The Miami Redhawks hockey program, known as The Brotherhood, recognized Brendan’s merits as a manager and as a person and embraced him for who he was. In 2009, Brendan came out to the world in an incredibly well-written piece by John Buccigross of ESPN (Buccigross also wrote a stirring article after Brendan’s death; both pieces are must-reads.) From that point on, Brendan advocated for gay athletes in sports, particularly hockey, promoting the idea that a person’s sexual orientation should have no impact on status or acceptance within a sports team or organization. After Brendan’s death, his brother Patrick said that his brother “packed more into those 21 years than most people do in a lifetime. He left his mark on so many people in so many ways.”
One year after Brendan’s death, a series of serendipitous events brought together three men — Patrick Burke, Brian Kitts, and Glenn Witman — and the You Can Play Project was born. Having played hockey my entire life and also having a close friend on the Miami (Ohio) hockey team, I was familiar with Brendan’s story and inspired by what he stood for and what the You Can Play Project was setting out to accomplish.
Consequently, when Venture for America challenged us to sell t-shirts for various causes a few weeks ago, You Can Play immediately came to mind. With the help of a friend who had worked with YCP in the past, I reached out to the organization with my idea of putting together a YCP t-shirt campaign. The team at YCP was immediately receptive to the idea and after a few weeks of communication and various t-shirt designs, we launched the You Can Play t-shirt campaign on Saturday, July 14.
The response to the t-shirts has been overwhelming. Using the passion people have for YCP’s cause and the power of Twitter, we have spread the word to supporters and supporters have spread to word further still. As of Wednesday night, 225 shirts had already been ordered for an average of 45 shirts per day!
On Monday, I had the opportunity to speak on the phone with one of the founders of YCP, Brian Kitts. I wanted to learn more about him, his background, how exactly You Can Play came to be, and what he envisions for the organization’s future.
Brian grew up in New Mexico before attending the University of Denver where he says he gained his first real exposure to the sport of hockey. After college, Brian worked for both Disney and 20th Century Fox marketing movies before moving into sports marketing with the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets. While working for the Avalanche, Brian was in contact with a man named Glenn Witman. Glenn ran an elite gay hockey league in Denver called GForce and was always connecting with Brian about potential sponsorships with the Avalanche. Last February, Patrick Burke was scheduled to speak at a forum for athletes at the University of Denver and Glenn invited Brian to attend. Brian, who is also an Sports Marketing professor at the University of Denver, was familiar with the Burke family’s story and went to hear Patrick speak.
“Had I not gone to hear Patrick speak,” Brian recalls, “I don’t know if this would have ever happened.” But happen it did. Brought together by a unique set of circumstances and their own distinct motivations, Brian, Patrick, and Glenn co-founded the You Can Play Project.
Much like with the t-shirt campaign, the initial response to YCP’s launch was overwhelmingly positive. Brian remembers realizing that there were people out there who felt the same way he did, and then being surprised by people’s willingness to actually talk about their opinions.
“We’ve only had one guy in the entire time we’ve been doing this that wouldn’t do a video,” he says. ”All the other NHL players have said yes. By and large, everyone has really stepped up and said this is a big deal.” (Check out this YCP video featuring some of the biggest names in hockey)
In discussions with NHL players, Brian says that they have all essentially said, “We’re not homophobic, but no one has ever asked us.” This, according to You Can Play, is one of the major areas that needs to be addressed, not just on the professional level either. You Can Play has started to take hold in colleges and universities across the country, and the organization is making plans for a program that will educate coaches and team captains about how to bring up these issues with their teams. You Can Play has found that most college athletes don’t have any hesitation in having gay or lesbian teammates, but they don’t know how to talk about it within their teams. According to Brian, these conversations should be just as important as the drug and alcohol ones mandated by the NCAA.
Such success and growth is no easy task to achieve, though. A start-up in its own right, You Can Play has received a lot of attention and a lot of support since its official launch about four and a half months ago, “and it hasn’t really tapered off,” says Brian. With partnerships from the likes of NBC and HBO, YCP’s exposure demands constant time and attention from its three founders and the network of advisors and supporters they’ve built.
“I was getting up at four in the morning, answering e-mails and balancing book [for You Can Play], then going to work at my regular job, and then teaching two nights a week,” recalls Brian.
But to Brian and the rest of the YCP team, the cause is worth it. Brian explained to me how sports and entertainment can have such a strong impact on audiences. Something as simple as a “Kiss Cam” zooming in on two players on the visiting team’s bench can send the wrong message. This type of “casual homophobia” is what YCP is looking to eradicate from sports.
After twelve years with the Avalanche, Brian has moved into the public sector and currently works in the Denver mayor’s office. When I asked him what was next for You Can Play, he was confidently thinking long-term.
“All along, we’ve looked toward the end and not the next steps,” Brian says. ”What we’re hoping is that in four or five years, we’ll be out of business.”
And no sport is off limits. Moving forward, You Can Play is looking to expand to reach more schools, more coaches, and more sports. They’ve started the discussion; now the challenge is to keep the discussion going.
You Can Play’s motto reads “Gay athletes. Straight allies. Teaming up for respect.” While I may never be able to fully understand a gay athlete’s circumstances or fully recognize the immeasurable bravery that Brendan Burke possessed, I can be one of those allies who keeps the discussion going. And I fully intend to do just that.
Value creation is how I measure achievement.
- VFA Credo
Although I can hardly believe it, yesterday we completed our fourth week of VFA Training Camp. In the past two weeks, we have covered a wide range of topics ranging from marketing to leadership and start-up law to consulting, with a few fireworks thrown into the mix as well.
As in the previous weeks of training camp, we also had a challenge to tackle. This time, our task was simple: sell t-shirts. What sounds like an easy task turned out to be a pretty difficult feat. People may like an organization or an idea or a logo, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into them feeling strong enough to buy a shirt for it. Over the course of the three-week challenge, we learned how to distinguish between the causes that were interesting and those that had the passionate followings necessary for t-shirt sales.
We were also graced with the presences of countless trainers, speakers, and guests in these last two weeks. It is incredible to see the amount of people willing to step away from their normal routines and come visit us at Training Camp. The number of people that believe in VFA and what we are doing here always impresses me and only motivates me more to embody what the organization stands for and represents.
One more week, one more challenge to go. Updates to come…