Historic support from Canadian sports teams, players for Pride

An historic number of athletes, coaches, management and staff from Toronto sports teams and organizations attended this year's Pride Parade in Toronto.

You Can Play campaign continues to pave the way for sport inclusion

You Can Play and the Canadian Football League first partnered at the beginning of the 2014 season. (CFL)

An historic number of athletes, coaches, management and staff from Toronto sports teams and organizations attended this year's Pride Parade in Toronto.

More than 120 people representing the NHL, CFL, Canada Basketball, Canadian Olympic Committee and You Can Play are joining forces to continue their march towards making sport a more inclusive space.

"Our job is to create inclusive spaces for all athletes," Rosie Cossar said. "Sport is about sport and athletic ability and nothing else."

Cossar was recently appointed the COC's sport inclusion coordinator. It's a position she created herself after opening up about her athletic experience.

"Personally, I'm an out athlete, proud, and it took many, many years to be able to say that and be comfortable wearing the rainbow all over me."

It wasn't all that long ago Cossar was a closeted Olympian, hiding who she was throughout much of her athletic career because of fear of backlash.

"I'm still the only out rhythmic gymnast in the world," Cossar said.

"And that's kind of crazy if you think about it and goes to show it's not a safe environment. There's no way I am actually the only lesbian rhythmic gymnast in the world."

This realization continues to drive Cossar forward in her relentless pursuit of making the Canadian Olympic Committee and sport in general a more accepting space regardless of sexual orientation.

"We work with athletes on a daily basis who confide in us the difficulties they face with homophobia in sport and gender expectations in sport."

The COC, in partnership with You Can Play, will be attending 10 different Pride parades across the country this year. From the Northwest Territories to Halifax, Cossar says they wanted to show their commitment across the country to this initiative.

Rosie Cossar, who is COC's sport inclusion coordinator, competed at the 2012 Olympics. (Canadian Olympic Committee)

You Can Play driving force

The You Can Play campaign was born years ago, after a 2010 car accident took the life of 21-year-old Brendan Burke, the youngest son of current Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke.

Just months prior, Brendan came out to the hockey world as a gay man while he was the manager of the hockey team at Miami University in Ohio.

Since then, You Can Play has dedicated resources, passion and time to ensure equality, respect and safety for all who participate in sports, including LGBTQ athletes, coaches and fans.

"We don't know who needs us and we want to be agents of change," Jillian Svensson, vice president of development and operations for You Can Play, said.

Svensson said their work is more relevant than ever because of a recent studying showing a high level of homophobia in sport still existing in Canada.

According to an Out on the Fields 2016 survey, 81 per cent of Canadians witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport, and 70 per cent of Canadians believe youth team sports are not welcoming or safe for LGB people.

"We have a tremendous amount of work to do," Svensson said. "It has to be a collective effort to be visible and intentional with our message that if you can play, you can play. If you are a good teammate and have the passion and skill, that's the only thing that should matter in sport."

This weekend Svensson was in New York City for Pride festivities. It was the first time ever You Can Play had representation in New York's Pride Parade.

"Visibility matters and when we're bringing in pro teams at all level of sport people understand that sport has an opportunity to create positive change."

On Friday night, You Can Play also partnered with Major League Soccer for Toronto FC's first-ever Pride Night.

"There are down moments and moments of frustration but these moments are really special because it highlights the people who are in it for the right reasons."

CFL showing its support

You Can Play and the Canadian Football League first partnered at the beginning of the 2014 season. Since then, the league's players, coaches and front office staff have become more engaged in the campaign.

Paulo Senra, the league's director of communications, said the CFL wants to create a space that's inclusive of not only the people in the boardrooms and training rooms, but outside of that for its LGBTQ fans.

"We are trying to be as genuine as possible about how much we care about this initiative," Senra said. "Our work can't be done behind closed doors."

The CFL and You Can Play have partnered to make hats and shirts fans can wear to show their support for their team and pride.

"It was an idea that the two sides came together one. We wanted to make sure fans in the LGBTQ community had something they could be proud of and literally wear on their sleeves, or hats in this case."

The backlash has only motivated the CFL of its continued relationship with the LGBTQ community. (CFL)

Senra, who is an openly gay man, said they still face backlash with this initiative but it becomes motivation to keep moving forward with this work.

"Every time we have people disagree with what we're doing, that's reason enough to continue our work because we think this is right."

Senra and many more from the CFL were among the crowd Sunday at the parade before they raced off to watch the Toronto Argonauts season opener against the Hamilton Tiger Cats.

And he can't think of a better tailgate party to kick off the season in Toronto than a Pride parade.

About the Author

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.