CALGARY — Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish is a face of the CFL’s new partnership with You Can Play, which promotes equality, respect and safety for athletes regardless of their sexual orientation.
The CFL’s leading rusher and outstanding player last season will be one of the league’s ambassadors for the organization, whose motto is "Gay athletes. Straight allies. Teaming up for respect."
Cornish, a 29-year-old from New Westminster, B.C., knows what it’s like to feel different in the locker room.
"Coming from a place where I was different than most of the people I played sports with, where I was the only dark-coloured person in my locker room, I definitely understood how being different sort of makes you feel unwelcome," he said Friday at McMahon Stadium. "That’s why I’m here.
"I want to help everyone recognize if you can play, you deserve to play and you definitely have that right."
Cornish also has two mothers. He was 18 when his father died. His mother, Margaret, an Anglican priest, later married Andrea.
"I would say I probably would have gotten involved with this regardless but having such a loving second mother I hate it when I see people say anything that would limit what they can do," Cornish said. "Andrea loves me just as much as my mom does and I love her just as much as my biological mother.
"I had a biological father and he’s passed away. I would’ve liked to have a close relationship with him but in that place I have a wonderful second mom that’s everything I could want from a parental figure."
You Can Play was founded by Patrick Burke, a former Philadelphia Flyers scout whose father, Brian, is president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames. Patrick’s brother and Brian’s son, Brendan, was gay. Brendan Burke died following a car accident in 2010.
Former NFL player Wade Davis is currently You Can Play’s executive director. He spoke in 2012 about what it was like to be gay and closeted in the NFL.
Several NHL and Major League Baseball players have been featured in the organization’s "If you can play, you can play" video campaign.
Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly, B.C. receiver Marco Ianuzzi, Winnipeg defensive back Donovan Alexander, Hamilton defensive lineman Brian Bulcke, Toronto fullback Zander Robinson, Ottawa safety Eric Fraser and Montreal safety Kyries Hebert join Cornish as the CFL’s player ambassadors. President and CEO Jim Hopson will represent the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
"We live in a country which is very open and accepting and the CFL is such a part of the culture of Canada, it’s incumbent upon us to lead," CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said. "We want to make sure we’re a league that’s accepting of athletes regardless of their sexual orientation.
"It’s critical we get that message not just within our own locker rooms, but in locker rooms across this country."
The CFL fined one of Cornish’s teammates this spring for a Twitter post disparaging the sexual orientation of NFL prospect Michael Sam, who came out before being drafted by the St. Louis Rams. Receiver Maurice Price apologized twice, first in a statement and then publicly when training camp opened June 1.
"We’re not going to tolerate it, whether it’s homophobic slurs or racial slurs, that’s not who the CFL is," Cohon said. "It’s not what our country is about.
"I hope the message is getting through. When you have players like Jon leading the charge on this, I think it gets through. You need the leaders in the locker room to take a stand and be ambassadors and that’s what they’re doing."
Cornish, the CFL’s leading rusher the last two seasons, feels homophobia in the locker room is decreasing.
"There were certain slurs that were used a lot more when I first came into the locker room that are used sometimes, but they aren’t used as much anymore," he said. "That wouldn’t be necessarily racial slurs, but moreso homophobic slurs.
"I can’t really speak for anybody else in the locker room, but statistically speaking, there should be one or two gay people on my football team. It’s OK to be different. It’s OK to be yourself. I think we’re starting to recognize the problems with it not being OK to be yourself."