“If you can play...”
“If you can dribble, you can dribble.” “If you can dive, you can dive.” “If you can coach, you can coach.”
On paper, the words look kind of odd—not to mention, obvious. But when they’re spoken—out loud, with passion, by hundreds of different athletes and coaches, from dozens of different professional, college, and high school sports teams—they take on power and meaning.
What those men and women—shown throwing baseballs, juggling soccer balls, skiing down mountains and doing all kinds of other sporty things—are saying is, “If you are an athlete, you can be an athlete on my team. I don’t care about your sexual orientation. I want you here, to help me win.”
That’s a mouthful. How much easier just to say, “If you can play, you can play.”
They say it on camera, in a momentum-gathering and very compelling series of videos coordinated by the You Can Play project. Those clips are online. Be warned: If you click the link, you better have time. Each video is only a minute or two long, but you can’t watch only one. They’re addictive.
The first video was posted in March of 2012. It was the brainchild of Patrick Burke, whose brother Brendan Burke—the openly gay and much-admired student manager of the Miami University hockey team—was killed in an automobile accident. The Burkes’ father, Brian, is a well-known National Hockey League and U.S. hockey executive. So it’s no surprise that the initial “You Can Play” video came from the NHL. A dozen pro players said, basically, “If you can skate, you can skate.”
Like the viral takeoffs on “Call Me Maybe,” each “You Can Play” video follows a basic script. But—like their music counterparts—each shows individuality and flair.
Every school (and pro team, like Major League Soccer’s DC United) imparts its own spin to the main message. Some include clever touches, like a mascot. Others do something else to make the video their own.
While many athletes say “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight”—and others add “or bisexual or trans”—Dartmouth College players say, “your sexual orientation DOES matter.” So does “the color of your skin, your ethnicity, and faith.”
Why? “It matters because you are my teammate,” the Big Green athletes say. In other words, if something matters to you, it matters to everyone. And we’re there to encourage you.
“It takes courage to perform on the field,” one Dartmouth participant says. “But it shouldn’t take courage to go into your own locker room.”
(Interestingly, very few athletes’ names are used in any video. The idea is that the men and women on camera speak for everyone on their teams.)
UCLA is a storied program, with national championships in many sports. Jim Mora became the first Division I football coach to speak up for LGBT athletes. The Bruins’ quarterback also notched a “You Can Play” video first, with his appearance.
Notre Dame is another fabled sports school. The Fighting Irish video has drawn plenty of attention, because of the university’s Catholic roots and Midwestern location. As a Notre Dame alumnus, Patrick Burke is particularly proud of that one.
Boston College High drew attention because it too is Catholic—and a high school. BCHS athletes truly show what the school—which draws students from miles around—is all about.
Those high school athletes say “I am open to growth.” “I am committed to doing justice.” “I am religious.” “I am loving.” “I love to compete.” “I love my teammates.” And, they add: “It doesn’t matter if you’re from the city or suburbs, are tall or short, speak English as a first or second language, or are straight or gay. If you can work hard, we can work hard together.”
Another high school—Denver East—won a statewide video contest sponsored by the Colorado High School Activities Association. One after another, players from the school—whose alumni include Douglas Fairbanks, Mamie Eisenhower and Judy Collins—face the camera and say, “What matters is heart, talent, and skill.” “When my teammates play, knowing they are accepted, they are better athletes.” “And I’m a better athlete. When they win, we all win.” “Not all teams look the same, or play the same way. But we all want to win. Anyone that helps us win is welcome on our team.”
Denver East wins. In fact, this winter they won the state high school boys basketball championship.
At Denver East—and at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Middlebury College, Brown University; on the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Omaha Lancers; all throughout cyberspace, in fact—if your team is open-minded and cool, you can shoot a video.
Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, and gay activist. His latest book is “We Kick Balls: True Stories from the Youth Soccer Wars.” Email Dan Woog