By Dan Woog
Bowdoin College is a warm, welcoming place. Nestled in a small Maine town, it’s the kind of place where Ben Chadwick could be out – and enjoy full, even joyful, acceptance from his lacrosse teammates and coaches.
Yet – as Chadwick himself notes – Bowdoin is “a bit of a bubble.”
So as warm and welcoming as the school is, it was still important for Brian Burke to appear there this spring. The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager – whose openly gay son Brendan was killed in an automobile accident last spring – spoke to a packed auditorium as part of Bowdoin’s “Anything But Straight in Athletics” series.
“It’s good for students here to understand that being gay is still an issue” beyond Bowdoin’s idyllic campus, Chadwick says.
The event featured a representative of one of sport’s most macho cultures – ice hockey – thanks in part to the efforts of someone who plays another notoriously anti-gay game: lacrosse.
Yet Chadwick epitomizes the changes sweeping through even the most masculine sports today.
Growing up in Needham, Mass., he always knew he was different. But he was a jock – an All-State football receiver, in fact – and did not come out until senior year. His friends and family were very supportive, but word spread quickly – “high school drama,” Chadwick laughs – and as captain of the lacrosse team, he worried he’d lost control of the process.
So in college it took a while for him to come out again. “The lacrosse culture is generally conservative – pretty close-minded,” Chadwick notes.
His brother had played lacrosse at Bowdoin, though, so Chadwick was already friendly with older players and the coaches. His college coming-out experience, he says, has been “awesome.” His teammates pledged to support him in any way they could – and they have.
Still, Chadwick says, there was “not much of a bridge” between Bowdoin athletes and LGBT students. So as a sophomore he worked with Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity director Kate Stern and openly gay men’s tennis coach Colin Joyner to create Anything But Straight in Athletics. They met every couple of months, talking about common issues and offering support to LGBT athletes.
Last year they developed a special program for the entire Bowdoin community. ESPN writer LZ Granderson discussed “Men, Manhood and Mayhem: The Real Reasons Behind Homphobia in Sports.” Out himself, he addressed perceived threats to men who have gay teammates.
At the same time, openly gay photographer Jeff Sheng exhibited “Fearless,” his stunning portraits of LGBT high school and college athletes.
This year, Chadwick’s connection to the ABSA day was even more personal.
Brian Burke’s daughter Molly was a sophomore at Bowdoin. She and Chadwick are friends. Through her and mutual friends, he met Brendan Burke last year.
“He was an unbelievable guy,” Chadwick says of the beloved Miami University of Ohio hockey manager. “I looked forward to getting to know him more.”
Two weeks later, Brendan Burke was killed in an automobile accident. His death stunned the hockey world, from the college players who had accepted him as a full, important member of their team, to his father’s colleagues and the entire National Hockey League. Brian Burke is a long-time sports executive, including a stint as general manager of the 2010 U.S. Olympic hockey team.
At Bowdoin, Burke did not talk much about his son. “It’s still too raw,” Chadwick says.
But Burke did describe the NHL environment, in terms of sexuality. And he did say that his Maple Leafs team would be very accepting of an openly gay player.
“It was good to get the outside perspective,” Chadwick says. “We’re inside the Bowdoin bubble. We need to hear the macro level.”
Seeing a lecture hall full of athletes listen raptly to a big, gruff guy talk about accepting gay men in hockey was “very exciting,” Chadwick says.
And Burke’s “very positive” words resonated with everyone, Chadwick adds. “Your sexuality doesn’t matter, so long as you produce on the ice” was the main message, and it was delivered loudly and clearly, Chadwick says.
Burke described the hundreds of emails he received after the death of his son. One boy said he’d be kicked out of his house if his parents knew he was gay. “That broke my heart,” Burke said.
Chadwick graduated last month. He’s heading to New Orleans, where he’ll spend two years with Teach for America (and, hopefully, do some coaching). Looking back at his Bowdoin career, he is proud and happy.
“Four years ago,” he says, “people might have thought the lacrosse team would be the last one to accept a gay guy. But everyone has been great.”
Thanks, in part, to the great attitude and hard work of athletes like Ben Chadwick and Brian Burke.