Don’t be surprised to hear sports journalists discussing gay rights, marriage equality and bullying when the Baltimore Ravens face the San Francisco 49ers next weekend during Super Bowl XLVII. At least one player hopes to leverage his appearance at the big game into a platform for equality and social justice: Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo.
The three-time Pro Bowler—who became an internet phenom several years ago due to a few strategic accessories—has emerged as one of professional sports’ most articulate supporters for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Ayanbadejo was a vocal advocate for the pro-equality side in the ultimately successful fight for marriage equality in Maryland. The thirty-six-year-old star player decided to take his campaign to the world’s most watched television event “only hours after his team” won the AFC Championship against the New England Patriots last weekend, wrote New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.
In an email sent to Russell Simmons’ political director Michael Skolnik and LGBT rights advocate Brian Ellner, Ayanbadejo asked: “Is there anything I can do for marriage equality or anti-bullying over the next couple of weeks to harness this Super Bowl media?”
“It’s one of those times when you’re really passionate. I [was] thinking about all kinds of things and thought: How can we get our message out there?” Ayanbadejo told Bruni.
“I was actually texting with Brendon the other day and I'm in awe of this brother,” former NFL player Wade Davis told EBONY.com. “Brendon’s courage and determination is beyond words. Some may view it as career suicide.”
Public opposition to gay rights and same-sex marriage is rapidly eroding—but the locker rooms and clubhouses of the four major pro-sports leagues remain among the last bastions of homophobia. There are no openly gay players in basketball football, hockey or baseball.
Wade Davis played for the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks. Davis has come out as openly gay after retirement and wrote an op-ed on sports and homophobia two weeks ago for the Los Angeles Times. “Ayanbadejo’s type of sacrifice saves lives and inspires millions to speak out,” adds Davis.
Ayanbadejo is biracial—his father Nigerian and mother is white—and was raised in progressive Santa Cruz, California. "If you grow up there you might have a gay or lesbian teacher or a classmate who is openly gay," Ayanbadejo told the Washington Blade in 2009. "It’s no big deal."
The player first publicly came out for equal marriage in an April 2009 op-ed for the Huffington Post. He wrote, "If Britney Spears can party it up in Vegas with one of her boys and go get married on a whim and annul her marriage the next day, why can't a loving same sex couple tie the knot?"
The post received little attention at the time of its publication but gradually picked up steam. Ayanbadejo’s activism was later profiled by the Washington Post and he was enlisted as a spokesperson for Equality Maryland. Ayanbadejo is a strong supporter of environmental sustainability issues and anti-bullying.
“[Ayanbadejo] has totally squashed the ‘dumb jock’ stereotype,” former pro-basketball player DeMarco Majors told EBONY.com. Majors played in the American Basketball Association, was the first pro-basketball player to come out while still playing and was selected by OUT Magazine for its prestigious “OUT 100” list. “It’s amazing to have a platform as large as the Super Bowl and to realize that so many people do not have a voice. It’s also important that Ayanbadejo is a man of color,” adds Majors. “I’m biracial myself and can empathize completely.”
Wade Davis agrees. “It's extremely important that Brendon is Black and supporting [gay rights] because of the false perception that the Black community is more homophobic than others,” Davis told EBONY.com.
Despite evidence to the contrary—such as numerous surveys or voting patterns—the “perception” of pervasive homophobia in the Black community has morphed into a media narrative. A number of Black professional athletes have emerged in recent years to counter the stereotype—such as Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Michael Strahan, Robert Griffin III, Donte Stallworth and others.
“I’m really looking forward to the Super Bowl,” says former pro-basketballer DeMarco Majors. “It’s a huge stage and I can’t wait to see Ayanbadejo play.”
Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News, NBC and FOX, and his writing has appeared in EBONY, The Advocate, OUT.com, The Los Angeles Times and many others. Read his award winning site Rod 2.0. Follow him on Twitter: @RodMcCullom