Burke: Jays ‘very supportive’ of LGBT community

The Blue Jays invited Pride Toronto co-chair Shelly Craig (centre) to throw out the ceremonial first pitch Thursday. (Sportsnet/Shi Davidi)

TORONTO – Now nearly two years removed from Yunel Escobar’s use of an anti-gay slur on his eye-black, the Toronto Blue Jays remain committed to making their organization a welcoming place for people of all sexual orientations.

Patrick Burke, co-founder of You Can Play, an organization that supports LGBT athletes and promotes equality for them in sporting environments, says the Blue Jays haven’t allowed the passage of time to erode their attention to the issue.

While the sides haven’t formalized a relationship, Burke maintains regular contact with GM Alex Anthopoulos, and You Can Play ran educational seminars for the club and all its minor-league players last spring.

And though the club didn’t send a representative to Sunday’s pride parade through downtown Toronto – the team was tied up with its game against the Chicago White Sox, after all – the Blue Jays did invite Pride Toronto co-chair Shelly Craig to throw out the ceremonial first pitch Thursday.

"They’re certainly very supportive from the top-down," says Burke. "It became difficult last year, obviously they weren’t having the year they wanted. Maybe I’m a little too sensitive to that stuff because I’m in the sports world, but I know what it’s like to be in the front office of a losing team, and not wanting to do anything but sit in a dark room, so we gave them a little bit of space because we didn’t want to be a pain in their ass.

"Last year we addressed everybody so we didn’t feel the need to hammer it home year after year. The trainings that we do are things that can be done once every few years, and don’t have to be done on a yearly basis to really drive the point home."

Finding ways to drive the point home on a wider scale is something Major League Baseball is working on right now.

Even before Escobar took to the field with the Spanish word "maricon," loosely translated as faggot, written on his eye-black, Major League Baseball had partnered with a group called Athlete Ally, which "provides public awareness campaigns, educational programming and tools and resources to foster inclusive sports communities," according to its website.

The Escobar incident underlined to MLB officials the need for additional work to promote tolerance of and equality for gay athletes in the sport, and a clause in the collective bargaining agreement protecting players from discriminatory actions based on race, colour, religion and national origin was amended to include "sexual orientation" in the latest labour deal.

During the off-season, MLB set up educational seminars for various team executives during the winter meetings, while player-focused programming was included at its rookie development camp.

You Can Play, which held introductory meetings with MLB officials roughly a year ago but has limited follow-up since, provides such training for players young and old, but Burke believes it’s easier and more effective to teach kids.

"There’s something to be said for both," says Burke. "If we can get to 18, 19 year old kids, we can make sure this next generation is inclusive from the start. There are certainly things we can do with older players, we’re certainly willing and able and effective when it comes to teaching them about things, but it’s a lot easier to get a kid at a young age and he or she grows up with a good understanding of LGBT inclusion."

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