WATCH ABOVE: Michael Sam arrives in Montreal to join Allouettes. He says his focus is really on football, but he’s also becoming a powerful role model. Mike Armstrong reports.
CALGARY, Alberta — Brian Burke believes the Montreal Alouettes signing of Michael Sam is a tipping point in professional sports.
The Calgary Flames president of hockey operations, who co-founded You Can Play in memory of his late son, says the arrival of the openly gay player in the CFL will be a watershed moment.
“I think it’s huge,” Burke told The Canadian Press on Tuesday. “To me, this is one of those 20, 30, 40 years from now, people will look back and say ‘remember when Michael Sam signed with the Alouettes?’
“We know we have gay athletes in all sports. I think other gay athletes are going to see the reception that Michael Sam gets and how wonderful it’s going to be for him.”
The Alouettes signed the 25-year-old Sam to a contract and introduced him on Tuesday.
“You get some idiots on the Internet. You always do,” Burke said. “But instead of a hostile environment, he’ll see that intelligent and enlightened people welcome him in this role in Canada and wish him luck.”
Burke co-founded You Can Play, an organization to eliminate homophobia in sport, following the death of his gay son Brendan in a car accident in 2010.
Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish, who has two moms and is a spokesperson for You Can Play, says some football players can be close-minded. Montreal Alouettes wide receiver Arland Bruce, Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive tackle Bryant Turner Jr., and former Stampeder receiver Maurice Price were all fined by the CFL in early 2014 for homophobic tweets.
WATCH: Michael Sam excited to be a part of the Montreal Alouettes
Cornish said Sam’s participation in the league can change those attitudes.
“Attitudes only change when you see something up close,” Cornish said. “It’s easy to have an attitude about something when it’s far away. ‘Gay people over there? I won’t be down with that,’ but when it’s a family member or a teammate, suddenly it’s ‘this guy is a cool dude.'”
NBA player Jason Collins was the first pro athlete of the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL to come out while an active player, which he did 18 months before retiring last November. Rugby player Gareth Thomas and Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe came out after retirement.
Sam came out at the end of his college career at Missouri. He was the first openly gay football player to be drafted into the NFL last year. The St. Louis Rams cut him at the end of training camp and he spent some time on the practice roster of the Dallas Cowboys.
“The perception would be of all the sports, (football is) probably the most macho, probably the last place you’d expect a player to come out,” Burke said. “I think what Michael Sam has done is courageous. I think what the Montreal Alouettes have done to sign him and give him an opportunity is courageous.”
Sam’s arrival in the CFL may be another step on the road toward an athlete’s sexual orientation no longer making news, but Canadian luger John Fennell expects that won’t happen for a while.
Fennell came out after competing in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where the country’s anti-gay legislation was a controversial issue.
“There are still so many closeted athletes who are first of all pushed out of sport or who feel like they can’t be themselves in their sport, that it still needs to be addressed,” Fennell said. “The fact that up until today, there hadn’t been any pro sports gay player in Canada to my knowledge, it’s still a testament to how much progress still needs to happen.”