In the early hours of July 20th, 2012, Jessica (Redfield) Ghawi – daughter, sister, friend, sportswriter, You Can Play intern, and more – was one of 12 people tragically killed in Aurora, Colorado. I liked and respected her immensely. But this piece cannot be about Jessica, because I firmly believe that her family and close friends deserve the honor of being the ones who remember her publicly.
This is why I try not to write about my late brother Brendan very often. Largely on account of our gender and employment, my father and I have been given far too much of a role in shaping his public perception and legacy. My mother, Kerry; my sisters Katie, Molly, Mairin, and Gracie; and my step-mother Jennifer rarely get the opportunity to share their thoughts and memories of him. This is despite the fact that without their influence Brendan would not have been even close to the person I am so proud he was. For that matter, let it be known that if there is anything good or decent about me as a person, it stems directly from these wonderful women, especially my mother. My sisters, who would prefer to grieve privately, have given me a wonderful gift by permitting me to work with You Can Play. They have sacrificed their privacy and perpetuated the nonsense belief that I am some sort of fantastic brother and in doing so have provided me with a much-needed outlet for my grief. It is a debt I can never truly repay to them, except to try to show them just how much that gift means to me.
For many reasons, today has re-opened some wounds. And for some insane reason I have an easier time writing out my thoughts and sharing them with a thousand strangers than I do picking up the phone and calling a close friend. I am writing this in the hope that maybe you’ll understand why I’m so passionate about You Can Play, and making sure we do this right. In the hope that you’ll see beyond the intentional pugnacity of my public image as presented on twitter. Perhaps selfishly, I also hope that it will be cathartic for me in a way that spending an afternoon crying into a towel has proven not to be. Most importantly, I am writing to you, the sports community, to tell you about an opportunity we have that we are denying ourselves.
For better or worse, my life is defined through the lens of sports. If I have my way, it always will be. My life has been enhanced wonderfully and completely by my affiliation with hockey – first by birth, then by childhood passion, then by participation, and now by choice of employment. I know the vast majority of people reading this right now feel the same way. Sport has a way of evoking joy, enhancing community, and inspiring greatness that few other aspects of our culture can match. In the wake of losing Brendan, I have constantly sought comfort, distraction, and happiness in the hockey community.
No one teaches you what life is really like. There’s no class on how to react when your parents get divorced. No one tells you what it’s like to move across the country, lose all your friends, and start over. No one explains how it works when you lose your brother. You have to learn it all for yourself, day by day.
Then, you adjust to what is now your life. You learn that icepacks under your eyes are a good way to make it look like you haven’t been crying. You learn how to react when people come up to thank you after giving a speech on equality. You learn that when you speak at high schools, no one will come up to thank you – but if you look around the room you’ll meet the desperate, searching eyes of a kid who wants nothing more than for what you said to come true. You learn how to respond without choking up when someone asks “How many siblings do you have?” You learn that some nights you’ll dream about his death, and some nights you’ll dream that he’s still alive, and that you’ll never really be able to figure out which one is harder to deal with.
There’s a terrible loneliness that comes from losing your best friend. When the person you relied on to get you through the hard times is missing, the journey is all the darker. Our lives are filled with the near limitless potential for deep, pure, overwhelming sadness. To my perpetual frustration, this potential is most often unlocked through events that are out of our control.
Sadness and sports. It is through these two lenses that my passion for You Can Play is focused. As the less-friendly members of the LGBT community are fond of reminding me, I have never been in their shoes. I am ill-equipped to describe what it feels like to be bullied or exiled for being gay because I don’t know. But I know loneliness. I know isolation. I know grief. And I know that in my case, nothing I can do will ever truly end those feelings. However, I also know that while mine may be, not all loneliness is perpetual, not all isolation is unbreakable, and not all grief is insurmountable.
The sports community at large has a homophobia problem. But we also have an opportunity. All of us have an amazing, almost unprecedented, opportunity to control the amount of suffering in the world. Re-read that sentence. We – athletes, coaches, administrators, media, and fans – can destroy loneliness, crush grief, and shatter isolation for millions of people around the world who feel all of these things simply because of their sexual orientation. We can look at the sadness that is possible in the world and simply say, “No.” We choose inclusion. We choose to build up, not tear down, those around us. We choose to give hope to those struggling, protection to the scared, and strength to the weary. We choose to take what is so good about sports and share it with as many people as possible instead of trying to hoard it for ourselves.
The amazing part about this choice is that it takes almost no effort. I don’t need you to march in parades, spend hours volunteering your time, or donate your hard-earned money. Doing any of those things would be great, but I’m not asking for that. All I need you to do is change the way you talk. Stop using homophobic slurs casually. Start preaching support for the gay community. That’s it. Show support, and all those who feel isolated will feel included.
To bring true sadness into the world takes big actions. It takes a man with a gun. It takes a fatal accident. It takes madness, hatred, or chaos. I am inviting, asking, begging all of you who love sports to recognize our ability to bring true happiness into the world through small actions. There is more than enough grief in the world that is uncontrollable. Now is the time for the sports world to come together and put an end to the suffering we do control.