My friends, please say hello to Brendon Ayanbadejo.
He played football for UCLA in the late ‘90s. In fact, he was a starting linebacker on the infamous 1998 team, which was a game away from playing for the national title when it got kneecapped by Edgerrin James and Miami in the unfondly remembered “Hurricane Bowl” (so nicknamed both because of the opponent and because the game was postponed for 10 weeks by Hurricane Georges). After a few years in the Canadian Football League, he’s put together a nice little career as a special-teamer in the NFL, having reached the Pro Bowl in that capacity three times. A free-agent deal he signed last year with the Baltimore Ravens has made him a millionaire a couple times over.
In 2009, Ayanbadejo is adding to his résumé a credential considerably more interesting than the foregoing and possibly unprecedented in major American sports: Activist for Gay Rights.
Last April, Ayanbadejo published an essay for The Huffington Post titled “Same Sex Marriages: What’s the Big Deal?” In it he argued for the legality of gay marriage and for gay rights generally.
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?… I think we will look back in 10, 20, 30 years and be amazed that gays and lesbians did not have the same rights as every one else. How did this ever happen in the land of the free and the home of the brave?
And earlier this month, Ayanbadejo attended an event held by Equality Maryland, an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) civil rights group. The executive director of Equality Maryland has publicly thanked Ayanbadejo for the support, stating that when someone “like Brendon Ayanbadejo speaks out for marriage equality, scores of people who may not give thought to LGBT issues will hear crucial equality messages from someone they themselves aspire to be.”
Waiting For Gaybreak
To the non-sports fan, this might not seem terribly remarkable. About half of all Americans now favor recognition of same-sex unions, so it’s not like Ayanbadejo is staking out some fringe position here. What’s the big deal indeed?
The big deal, all you askers of rhetorical questions, is that pro football is the most aggro-masculine institution our culture has. By design the game is violent and confrontational. The aesthetics of the NFL – exclusively female cheerleaders, fighter jet flyovers, exclusively male announcing and studio teams, Denis Leary truck commercials – are heteronormative to the point of self-caricature. Even when I’m wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches and stroking my beard like the bookish man of letters I am, I can’t think of any corner of society less LGBT-hospitable.
And yet, here’s Ayanbadejo, speaking publicly and articulately on behalf of TEH GAYS. It’s strange enough for a professional athlete to be politically vocal in any fashion beyond “Stay in school!” banalities. For one to champion a cause so contrary to the NFL’s cultural norms is startling, even sui generis. This is the league, after all, whose locker rooms were the breeding ground for the odious ”no homo” meme.
The big four American pro sports – football, men’s basketball, baseball and hockey – have yet to see an active player declare his homosexuality. A few former players have identified themselves as gay, most recently in 2007, when John Amaechi, once a journeyman NBA center, revealed his homosexuality in his published memoir. There’s also at least one example of an active player “coming out anonymously,” so to speak, in A Gay Athlete’s Life, a blog purportedly written by a closeted Major League Baseball player. But the gay Jackie Robinson – or, if you prefer, the Neil Patrick Harris of pro sports – still hasn’t announced himself.
"Football season is over, Veronica. Kurt and Ram had nothing left to offer the school except for date rapes and AIDS jokes."
Doesn’t it seem a bit overdue at this point? Granted, LGBT equality remains shamefully theoretical in many respects, but halting progress is apparent. Four states now recognize same-sex marriage, Barack Obama (at the risk of damning him with faint praise) is the most pro-LGBT president in history, and several members of the LGBT community made the short list for the latest U.S. Supreme Court appointment. Twenty-one states ban discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation, and Congress is considering a ban on such employment nationwide. A gay man just hosted the Emmy Awards, and a gay woman is about to become a judge on American Idol. In polite company overt homophobia is taboo. Despite the many ways our laws and culture still fall short in this regard, homosexuality clearly doesn’t carry the same marginalizing stigma it once did. So when it comes to sports, what’s the hold-up, exactly?
The hold-up, it’s long been assumed, arises from the intimidatory climate of the locker room. We imagine that any athlete who comes out will suffer ridicule and pariahdom at the hands of teammates, and that the resulting work environment could be even more excruciating than life in the closet. No doubt this hypothesis owes something to well-worn stereotypes of athletes as towel-snapping sadists (à la Ram and Kurt in Heathers). More reasonably, perhaps, we recognize that college is where many people encounter LGBTs for the first time, and that a lot of pro athletes either didn’t attend college or did so only briefly. It’s not crazy to imagine that they’re not as well socialized in diversity matters as we’d like.
Unfortunately, there’s also empirical support for the notion of locker rooms as homophobe redoubts. Too many athletes, when asked about the prospect of a gay teammate, have sounded like cretinous dipshits. Just for fun, let’s hop in the TARDIS and rewind to February 2007, right after Amaechi’s announcement. What did former NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway have to say about this?
You know, I hate gay people… I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.
Ah. Right. Thanks for your honesty? I guess? Sorry, Mr. Hardaway, I didn’t mean to cut you off… you have further thoughts you’d like to share?
And second of all, if he was on my team, I would, you know, really distance myself from him because, uh, I don’t think that’s right. And you know I don’t think he should be in the locker room while we’re in the locker room. I wouldn’t even be a part of that.
Yeeeesh. Two years after the Amaechi thing came and went, Hardaway’s comments still destabilize one’s digestive tract. Sadly, he wasn’t alone in his idiocy, as then-76ers Shavlik Randolph and Steven Hunter vocalized the following sentiments into a nearby recording device.
Randolph: As long as you don’t bring your gayness on me I’m fine. As far as business-wise, I’m sure I could play with him. [That’s very kind of you, Shav! –Ed.]
Hunter: For real? He’s gay for real? [Yes it’s FOR REAL, you doorknob –Ed.] Nowadays it’s proven that people can live double lives. I watch a lot of TV, so I see a lot of sick perverted stuff about married men running around with gay guys and all types of foolishness.
Good Lord. Any closeted athlete reading such comments must have been disheartened, though surely less surprised and taken aback than were we civilians.
The Future Is Unwritten
The good news is, the reaction of the NBA community to these remarks (especially Hardaway’s, which received the most attention) was quite what you’d hope for: distaste and disavowal. Pat Riley – president of the Miami Heat, Hardaway’s former coach and one of the sport’s mandarin elite – promptly announced that Hardaway’s views “would not be tolerated in our organization.” NBA commissioner David Stern essentially banished Hardaway from league events. The online and print communities shoveled well-deserved scorn and mockery his way.
I find it encouraging to look back on this anti-antigay backlash. It suggests that our fears of what awaits the first openly gay athlete are exaggerated, that maybe we’re not giving the parties involved enough credit. Is it plausible to think that when a pro athlete finally does come out, he’ll be greeted with a mixture of applause and benign shrugs? Cyd Zeigler, president of Outsports, is optimistic, pointing out in this piece data indicating that a majority of pro athletes would welcome a gay teammate and that as a general matter, people tend to think that others are more homophobic than they actually turn out to be. The polling numbers cited by Cyd are from 2006, but it’s hard to imagine that attitudes have worsened since then.
Regardless, we don’t know exactly how this will play out until it does, which is why Brendon Ayanbadejo is important. In his vocal support for gay rights, he’s preparing the battlefield. He’s signaling to closeted players that the coast, if not entirely clear, is more welcoming than it once was. Perhaps it’s not Rosa Parks at the back of the bus, but it’s noble and ballsy in its own right, and deserves the acclamation of all and sundry.
By the way, Jackie Robinson was a Bruin, too. That has nothing to do with this story; I just like mentioning it.
(Authorial postscript: a request to interview Brendon Ayanbadejo was politely deferred by the Ravens’ media personnel. No attempt was made to interview Shavlik Randolph because fuck that guy.)