Locker rooms, on one level, are really nothing more than giant closets, places for athletes to hang up their clothes. So how come no active gay male athlete has come out of any of the cavernous closets of North America's four major team sports? The day is coming when that will happen, maybe even some day soon. And leagues are working publicly, as well as behind the scenes, on how all of that might unfold. Thursday the NHL took a public step toward inclusion when it announced a formal partnership with You Can Play, an advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring equality and respect for all athletes regardless of sexual orientation. "Our league is ready for this and our players are ready for this," Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke told USA TODAY Sports. "The culture of the sport, when it comes to LGBT issues, is so far ahead of the other sports that I have no doubt that there will be openly gay athletes in the NHL in the near future." Burke is the son of longtime NHL executive Brian Burke and co-founder of the year-old You Can Play, which will work with the NHL and the NHL Players' Association to enable players to seek counseling or ask questions on matters of sexual orientation on a confidential basis through the NHL's Behavioral Health Program. Other leagues are also taking steps. The NFL's, NBA's and MLB's collective bargaining agreements ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league's rookie symposiums will include sessions on inclusion and tolerance. He also said NFL senior vice president of player engagement Troy Vincent met last week with three organizations representing the LGBT community, including You Can Play, as part of ongoing dialogue. Should an NFL player or players come out, "Our league and team security people would be ready to monitor any kind of public reaction that might not be appropriate, including scrubbing social media" for potential threats, Aiello said. "We would assist the player in dealing with any adverse public reaction of any type, if there is any. Hopefully there wouldn't be and it would be a non-issue, which it should be." The NBA has partnerships with the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and unveiled multiple public service announcements in 2011 to address anti-gay language and anti-LGBT bullying. NBA spokesman Michael Bass said sessions on LGBT issues are part of Team Awareness Meetings and rookie orientation. "This has been our policy for some time now," Bass said, "and we are in full support of the NHL's actions here." All of which leaves open the question of how soon male gay athletes might come out in North America's major team sports. Toronto Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk said he thinks Thursday's announcement means that day is sooner than later. "It hasn't happened yet, but this kind of partnership could make someone comfortable enough to want to come out," van Riemsdyk told USA TODAY Sports. "We are on the right path for something like that happening." Patrick Burke says too much media emphasis is placed on when it might happen, even as he lays groundwork for it to happen. "I think the one thing that gets lost in the shuffle in all this media stuff is that there are real people behind this," he said. "This is their life and this is their struggle, this is their livelihood, this is their career. People say, 'Oh, you should come out,' but this is how guys pay for their kids' college. This is important. "And I think too often we talk about this in the abstract and people lose sight of the fact that we've got athletes in professional sports right now who are struggling with this and are afraid of being discovered. And too often we talk about these guys in the abstract like they don't exist. In a weird way, we are talking about the fact they do exist while making it seem like they don't, by not considering how what we say might affect them." Burke is careful to say that he will never comment on whether he has spoken with active gay athletes, but he said he has asked retired gay athletes about what active gay athletes might be thinking these days.
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