CALGARY - Brian Burke believes the Montreal Alouettes signing football's first openly gay player is a tipping point in pro sport.
The Calgary Flames president of hockey operations, who co-founded You Can Play in memory of his late son and who will also be grand marshal of this year's Pride Parade in Calgary, says the arrival of Michael Sam in the Canadian Football League will be a watershed moment in sport history.
"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.
"You get some idiots on the Internet. You always do. 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, acknowledges football locker-rooms are conservative.
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.
Cornish says 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. There's nothing wrong with what he's doing.'"
High-profile athletes such as rugby player Gareth Thomas and Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe came out after retirement. NBA player Jason Collins was the first pro athlete of the Big Four ??? NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL ??? to come out while an active player, which he did 18 months before retiring last November.
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 Alouettes signed the 25-year-old to a contract and introduced him to Montreal media Tuesday.
"This is a big day," Burke said. "I watched the press conference. I thought he pulled it off beautifully.
"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. 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."
Canadian luger John Fennell came out after competing in last year's 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where the country's anti-gay legislation was a controversial issue internationally.
Those Games were a turning point for Fennell. He came home from Sochi feeling that the Canadian Olympic Committee and his teammates had his back. The 19-year-old also had an Olympic role model to consult ??? swimmer Mark Tewksbury.
The CFL's acceptance of Sam could be a similar turning point for professional athletes, Fennell said.
"With the addition of Michael Sam to the CFL, hopefully something similar can happen in pro sports because up until this point, amateur sport in Canada has certainly been more pronounced in terms of having LBGT role models in the spotlight," he said.
Sam's arrival in the CFL is another step on the road towards an athlete's sexual orientation no longer being news, but Fennell expects that won't happen for a while yet.
"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," he 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."