Whether you like the man or detest him, Brian Burke is known for holding strong convictions. He espouses a tough, no-holds-barred brand of hockey and he looks the part as well. These strongly held convictions have led him to many successes and failures in life, but they’ve seldom left him in the wrong.
He may be obnoxious and brass – the term “arrogance” might even take on a whole new meaning when applied to him – but Burke cannot be characterized as unprincipled.
Fans of the Hartford Whalers, Vancouver Canucks, Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs (soon add fans of the Calgary Flames as well) have come to appreciate, if not celebrate, Burke’s hard-pressed ways.
There are a number of special causes in his life – hockey is the obvious example – but none compare to his commitment for the gay rights movement. Burke was an ambassador for gay rights in the community while general manager of the Leafs and it’s a cause he doesn’t plan to abandon despite a change in scenery.
By change of scenery, of course, I’m not referring to Burke’s new job as president of hockey operations in Calgary. I’m referring to his role as general manager of Team USA and what this entails for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Russia has recently adopted an “anti-gay” law that makes it an offence to act publicly in a homosexual manner. The law has been roundly criticized, drawing intense international pressure from foreign governments, non-governmental organizations and concerned citizens alike, but the Russian government stubbornly stands by it. This is Russia, after all, where “car drives you” – backwards in almost every conceivable sense.
As individuals, the people of Russia may be perfectly intelligent and decent, but as a collective, they’ve (once again) marched down the path of tyranny and oppression – the wrong path of human history.
We might be talking about Pussy Riot or gay rights, but the outcome is the same: the rights of others are sacrificed to “protect” the marginal rights of oneself. This is hardly the action of a mature, responsible and respectful democratic society.
Some critics have urged the International Olympic Committee to quickly relocate the Winter Olympics somewhere else - anywhere else - where common sense, not common prejudice, presides. Others have urged athletes (gay and straight) to take a stance at the Olympics and use the venue to embarrass Russia and its backwardness on the world stage.
Burke falls into the latter category and intends to exploit his position with Team USA. He’s already called upon athletes to greet Russia’s anti-gay message with a positive message of their own:
“So, Olympians, when you pack your skates, pack a rainbow pin. When you practice your Russian, learn how to say, ‘I am pro-gay,’” Burke wrote in a recent edition of Sports Illustrated.
The issue of gay rights is a personal one for Burke. His late son Brendan was gay, and Burke stood proudly alongside his son in the fight against homophobia. It’s this concern for basic human rights and common decency that Burke intends to champion in Russia. For him, the consequences of failing to act on his principles are simply too great to ignore.
“You don’t have to be gay to care about this. You don’t have to have a gay son or daughter to recognize an organized effort by a government to target and destroy a minority group,” Burke argued in the magazine. “History has taught us that, left unchecked, this sort of bigotry will only escalate. The rest of the world cannot bear silent witness.”
If anyone has the sense of purpose and internal fortitude to effectively challenge Russia’s new stance against gay rights, it’s Burke. He might not be elegant or agreeable, but he’s right.
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