What Obama could learn from Brian Burke

By E. Martin Nolan

How to make a civil rights statement with vigor

I’m not sure, well, I guess…
from http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/03/scintegrity/

Compare these two quotes:

“It has become abundantly clear to me that NHL players, coaches, and management agree completely with our ideals: talent matters, sexual orientation does not. If you can play, You Can Play.”

“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

The first is from Brian Burke, the old-school, hockey fight-advocating General Manager of the Toronto Maples Leafs. I think you know the second one. Both are in support of LGBT rights, but notice the difference in tone. Burke, as is his wont, is blunt and direct. He’s a hockey guy, and he’s taken this issue on like one: no bull, no tip-toeing. To use an analogy he’d appreciate, he’s dropped the gloves for this cause.

Obama, on the other hand, voiced his support for gay marriage like he was strapping himself into a car seat facing down and suspended by fickle wires over a shark tank. I mean, how many qualifiers, delays, pauses and passive-voice constructions can you use in 32 words? Then there’s this:

And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about … is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.

Mr. President, you know, you’re going to say what, you know, you’re going to say, so, you know, you should probably just go ahead and, you know, say it. Like Brian Burke did. No amount of hesitation will defend you against attacks from those who absurdly think it’s their right to speak with absolute certainty on behalf of a god who claimed “I am who am,” and a book that includes the phrase “all is vanity” (or “all is vapor,” in a more direct translation), both of which are perhaps the most vague and uncertain statements of all time—and are but two among a host of others (which, in turn, should probably indicate to true believers that maybe in following this faith you should be thoughtful, not angry). Be that as it may, the president just stuck his neck out for a worthy cause, and he should be commended for that (cautiously, remember when the Hope balloon deflated?).

Still, it was hard not to be a little disappointed in Obama’s evasive pronouncement, and to find a welcome contrast in the “You Can Play” initiative led by Burke and his son Patrick. Of course, the POTUS is in a far different position than a GM, with a whole lot more riding on his decision, and accepting gay athletes is not the same as supporting gay marriage. Or is it?

True, it’s one thing to take on a macho locker room culture and quite another to take on crazy-baiting K-Street lobbyists. But if you whittled down the causes these two men have staked a claim in, I think you’d find the same core: simple justice. Obama justified his position using the Golden Rule, which is to say he admirably used one core Christian idea to combat another one that was inflated into a core issue for political purpose (to create a wedge, as Karl Rove would put it).

I have no idea, nor do I care, what religious motivation, if any, is behind Burke’s support. Yet, Burke too used the Golden Rule to justify his position, if only implicitly. If we are to “treat others as we would like to be treated” then it follows that if we want to be judged by our performance on the ice rather than our identity off the ice, then we should accept others in the same way. That would go for players of color, for women, for LGBT players, and for everyone else. Like me, if you can play, you should be able to do so.

There is, however, one final difference between the two men’s positions, and it can be summed up by way of slogans. Obama’s support for gay marriage cannot have a slogan parallel to “if you can play, you can play.” Instead,  the analogical slogan in Obama’s case would be “if you can love, you can love,” not “if you can marry, you can marry,” because there is no parallel to the institution of marriage within the game of hockey. But if love naturally leads to marriage, and if you can love no matter what your sexual identification, then it is not so much of a leap to move from “if you can love, you can love” to “if you can marry, you can marry.” That is essentially the leap Obama just made, and that is historically commendable. It’s too bad he couldn’t do it with more purpose.

P.S. I was inspired to write this after reading Charles P. Pierce’s “Gay (Non) Panic: Nebraska assistant football coach Ron Brown and the beginning of the end of homophobia in sports” in Grantland. Excellent piece Mr. Pierce, once again. I would like to commend Grantland on their authenticity in addressing controversial issues. That was one thing I worried the site would fail to do, but ever since reading this review of Watch the Throne, I’ve found the site to be a welcome relief from the safe drudgery–or thinness–of so much mainstream writing, especially in regard to sports. Keep it up.


2 thoughts on “What Obama could learn from Brian Burke

  1. Pingback: Roundtable: The NHL and NHLPA Partner with the You Can Play Project | Hockey in Society

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