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A League of Fans Special Feature

Brian Kitts

Brian Kitts is one of three co-founders of You Can Play, an advocacy project “dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.

A sports-loving kid, Kitts grew up in New Mexico and graduated from the University of Denver. He spent 12 years working for the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche. He later had assignments with the Colorado Rapids, Colorado Mammoth, and the Arena Football League while working for Kroenke Sports and Entertainment.

Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Kitts.

Reed: What’s the mission of You Can Play?

Kitts: We’re trying to change the culture of sports when it comes to LGBT issues. You Can Play is working toward equality in the sports environment. We’re challenging the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by striving to get the focus on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit vs. his/her sexual orientation.

Reed: How did the You Can Play project come about?

Kitts: I teach part-time in the University of Denver (DU) sports and entertainment program. A guy I had gotten to know while working for the Colorado Avalanche, Glenn Witman, was going to be in Denver as part of a forum at DU. Glenn had contacted me several times through the years to discuss potential sponsorship opportunities for an elite gay hockey team that he had founded. Part of what he did was outreach to straight communities and that’s why he was at DU. As part of that outreach, Glenn had invited Patrick Burke, son of long-time NHL executive Brian Burke, to come to the University of Denver and speak.

Right after Patrick’s talk, Patrick, Glen and I went out to discuss the positive reaction from the audience to Patrick’s speech. Patrick had just given an excellent speech about the challenges lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) athletes face in the world of sports.

A good portion of Patrick’s talk was also about his younger brother Brendan’s experience as an openly gay hockey manager at the University of Miami of Ohio. Brendan’s inspiring story was told in an ESPN.com piece that received a lot of attention in the hockey world. Sadly, shortly after that article came out, Brendan was killed in an auto accident.

Brendan had always said, “It shouldn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, black or white, if you can play you can play.” That spirit was the genesis for the You Can Play project. After Brendan’s death, Patrick and his father Brian decided to spend a good part of their time using the influence they had to change how LGBT athletes are treated, which was why Patrick was at the University of Denver that night.

That turned out to be the same night that Glenn, who is gay, Patrick, the straight older brother of Brendan, and myself, straight with a younger gay brother, decided to create an organization for the purpose of making it easier for gay athletes and their straight allies to talk to each other about the issues gay athletes face. Our purpose was to find ways to work together on human rights issues for LGBT athletes.

We launched the effort in March of 2012. Basically, by working on this cause, the three of us have combined our passion for sports with our passion for human rights.

Reed: Do you think the sports world is the most homophobic cultural institution we have in this country?

Kitts: I don’t think that we should probably single out sports when you consider the repercussions of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or some religious institutions. Sports is no more or no less homophobic than many groups. But I think there is less of an understanding in sports. I think there is less permission to talk about LGBT issues in sports than in lots of other areas.

Reed: Race and gender issues in sports have received significant attention for decades. Sexual orientation hasn’t. Why do you think sexual orientation is the “silent” civil rights issue in sports?

Kitts: This lack of discussion on the issue is the thing that’s been holding sports back more than anything else. It’s a real lack of honesty. I think it’s different with gay and lesbian issues. With race it’s easy to identify who’s different. With gay players you don’t necessarily know that. This silence on sexual orientation has been holding players back, and holding sports back in general, for a long time.

Reed: In addition to a lot of speaking engagements and the numerous advocacy videos You Can Play does with professional athletes, you’re now working on a curriculum project for high schools. Can you tell me a little about that?

Kitts: Sure. We recently launched a curriculum project with the Colorado High School Activities Association. It’s tremendously important. It’s the first of its kind in the country. It will put an LGBT message into high school sports and activities. Everybody, whether you’re on the football team, or a member of the band or debate team, will soon get this message of inclusion in Colorado, and we hope to expand this project across the country.

Reed: What is the vision you and your fellow co-founders have for You Can Play?

Kitts: Well, if everything works right, we’ll be out of business in ten years. That would be my fondest hope. It would mean that there won’t be a need for what we do because being a gay or lesbian athlete is no longer a big deal.

There’s a generational shift in thinking about LGBT issues in general. What we find is that grown-ups tend to be more questioning about what we do and why we do it. On the other hand, kids get it. It’s much less of an issue for them. Discussing it is still important, and making it easier for kids to come out is still an area we need to work on, but I think we’re definitely seeing a generational shift on the whole issue.

Reed: What’s it going to take to get where you want to go?

Kitts: This can’t just be about groups like You Can Play doing the heavy lifting. It has to be a partnership between organizations like ours, professional leagues, professional teams, fans, and gay and straight athletes. And the list goes on and on from there. This is going to take the same effort as other civil rights causes have in the past, including race and gender issues.

Reed: What’s the scoreboard for You Can Play? In other words, how will you know if you’re winning?

Kitts: I think that when you talk about winning this type of game you really have to look at who’s paying attention. I think if you begin to see policies on this issue included in collective bargaining agreements, and areas like fan development, and game entertainment, etc., that will be one indication that we’re having a positive impact. Also, whether or not you are capturing the attention of athletes and fans and increasing their awareness and understanding, and whether or not they’re changing their attitudes and behaviors, that’s really how we can gauge – at least in the short-term – how well we’re doing.

Reed: How can people get involved with You Can Play?

Kitts: There are lots of ways. We have a fairly substantial volunteer network around the United States and Canada. Our volunteers work on everything from helping to get teams involved, hosting equality nights, doing work with individual players, etc. Our volunteers are our eyes and ears on the ground in terms of whether or not people are paying attention to these issues. They often propose ideas to us based on what’s happening in their areas. People contact us from all walks of life. They may have a specific set of skills that can help us and we work with them on their areas of interests.

Reed: Good luck with this initiative Brian and thank you for your time.

Kitts: You’re welcome.

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