By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - The National Hockey League on Thursday formed a partnership with You Can Play, an organization that promotes gay and lesbian equality in sports, intended to make the league more welcoming to gay players, fans and officials.
The NHL is the first of the four major U.S. professional sports leagues to sign up with the year-old organization, which aims to make players more sensitive to the atmosphere of "casual homophobia" that can exist in locker rooms.
The announcement comes the week after Rutgers University in New Jersey fired its men's basketball coach after ESPN aired video showing him berating players with homophobic slurs.
While that coach's behavior was extreme, said Patrick Burke, a talent scout for the Philadelphia Flyers who co-founded You Can Play, it is not uncommon for players and coaches to use homophobic language, even if they consider themselves supportive of gay rights.
"If you were to go to a group of athletes and say, 'Would you support an openly gay friend,' the vast majority would say yes. But if you were to say, 'How many of you have used an anti-gay term in the last 48 hours,' the majority would also say yes," Burke said.
"We have this disconnect with people and that's where education comes in. These are the only slurs today that can be explained away by someone saying, 'I didn't mean it that way.' With other slurs, racial slurs, that doesn't happen."
The league said it would launch an education campaign targeting players and fans intended to promote tolerance.
"Our motto is 'Hockey Is For Everyone,'" said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. "The official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands."
So far no pro athlete in any of the four major U.S. sports leagues -- a list that also includes Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association -- has come out as gay during his career.
Some, including former NFL defensive back Wade Davis, NBA center John Amaechi and MLB outfielder Billy Bean, have come out after retiring from their sports.
Burke's brother, Brendan, was a manager of a college ice hockey team who came out as gay in 2009 and a year later died in a car accident.
Support for gay rights has risen markedly in the United States over the past decade, with gay marriage now legal in nine U.S. states plus the District of Columbia.
A March Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 63 percent of Americans support gay marriage or civil unions, though there were sharp regional differences with support higher in the Northeast and lower in the South.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; editing by Andrew Hay)