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The NFL’s First Gay Rights Activist

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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.)

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About Dexter Fishmore

  • DexterFan

    Dude. I love this article, no homo.

  • STM

    One of the toughest men to play Rugby League – not Rugby Union, the international game Americans have probably seen on TV; this is the unbelievably tough and different rugby code that more resembles in its strategy and its brutality American football without pads or helmets and is played by teams of 13, not 15 – was a guy named Ian Roberts, who was regarded as one of the toughest men to ever pull on a pair of boots.

    He was also, towards the end of his stellar career as a feared, hard-tackling forward in the Australian National Rugby League, openly gay – although it was a poorly kept secret anyway.

    No one was stupid enough on the field to make remarks about Robbo’s sexuality. His teammates didn’t care either … they respected his toughness and his undoubted footballing ability. Those who were silly enough to make remarks often ended up in hospital or sitting on the sidelines injured for the rest of the season.

    It kind of put the stereotypes to rest for a lot of people, in this country (Australia) at least.

    I know of at least one situation where an opponent had to have his face reconstructed and the issue was settled out of court, although there is still much conjecture about what caused the incident – and the suggestion is that it was nothing to do with sexuality, rather on-field niggling and bitterness that had been festering for some time. As it was settled out of court, confidentiality agreements prevent anyone knowing.

    However, while I do not condone that type of punch-up, especially in televised sport, it was a pretty good indication of how strong Robbo was while he was playing and also why he was feared by opponents.

    He’s now pursuing an acting career and isn’t afraid to speak out about his own experiences growing up as a gay man in a tough man’s-man’s sport, or the experiences others might have to face in similar situations.

    One of my mates played footy with him and confirms what we all knew. If he was trying to tackle you, you’d best try to a) run around him or b) throw a hospital pass to some other poor bastard.

  • Esera Tualo and his former partner made a great point on that Rosie O’Donnell cruise documentary: For football players, there is an added danger. It’s pretty easy to hurt someone purposefully while making it look like part of the game. That was a great fear for them and kept him closeted until after he retired, and it’s hard to blame him. Even if 99% of players were completely supportive that danger would be there. The perpetrator would likely suffer no repercussions, since it’s “part of football” to hurt and get hurt.

    I do think that when we have some openly gay players in the league it will do more for LGBT equality than anyone in other forms of entertainment, or even other sports, could do, though. It would also go a long way towards busting the stereotype that all gay men are effeminate, a stereotype often reinforced by other gays in media, regardless of what they are like in their real lives. I honestly think that freaks more middle Americans out than actual homosexuality, because they can’t relate.

    To paraphrase Bill Maher, seeing the gay couples who married in Iowa changed the image already. Instead of men all dressed up for a pride march, America finally got to see how much many of these guys longing to marry each other look just like them, which suggests that there is no way to “tell” if the people you know are gay, straight, or whatever preference one may have unless they say the words out loud. It’s about time.

    @STM, thanks for that story, it gives me hope.

    It illustrates that maybe the answer is that we don’t just need a football player to come out while actively playing, but he needs to be the biggest baddest guy on the field. Someone that even football players are scared to tease and discriminate against, you know?

    That would be a great day for America!

  • Just to be clear, I think everyone should be themselves. No one should have to put on an act. But I’ve known very effeminate straight men and very macho gay men and everything in between, and sometimes I wish America could see that sexual orientation is not something that can be gauged by appearance alone. The longer people cling to stereotypes the more they can discriminate.

  • “The perpetrator would likely suffer no repercussions, since it’s “part of football” to hurt and get hurt.”

    I don’t know which part I disagree with more; the added danger or the fact that the man causing the injury would get away with it. You read what Dex wrote about Tim Hardaway. He was crucified after what he said back then. And just last year the Ravens were under the spotlight for perhaps targeting Hines Ward during games. With so many people analyzing game tape on a given week, nothing is unseen after the fact. It wouldn’t be that hard to find a trend in player targeting.

  • Aaron O.

    I am a firm believer of Adam & Eve, not Adam & Steve, or Jack N Jill went over the hill, Jack N Bill came running down the hill.

  • Thanks for the contribution, Aaron…

    Truly profound. And coherent.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone but Aaron.

    @STM – Interesting story… I’d not known about Ian Roberts. It certainly lends credence to the view that what matters in locker rooms is simply whether you can play, and not your sexual orientation. It’s an encouraging sign.

    @CraftLass – I think you make a very good point, that a gay pro athlete will be an important step for LGBT equality in that he’ll provide a counterexample to our stereotypes of weak, effeminate gay men. Many depictions of gay men in pop culture, even those that purport to cast them in a friendly light, are still essentially minstrelsy.

    I do agree with Suss that the risk of deliberate harm to, say, a gay NFL player are minimal. Whoever it is, he’ll have the eyes of the world on him, so if anything, others on the field will go out of their way to avoid injuring him for fear of a crushing public reprimand.

    The risks of more subtle slights at the hands of bigoted teammates – the ostracizing that could happen when cameras aren’t around – strike me as more real.

  • STM

    Yep, thanks guys. I though that story might be informative: Wikipedia describes Robbo as “an intimidating enforcer” on the field. I’d say that’d be a gross understatement.

    Like I say, he was one of the toughest and fittest Rugby League players ever to pull on a pair of footy boots, and after “coming out” was made captain of the North Queensland Cowboys, one of the new teams that came about in Australian RL after some upheaval in the administration of the game.

    And like I say, while Robbo’s admission caused plenty of discussion, it was also a bit of a non-event. I don’t know of anyone who stopped watching the game because of it, nor anyone on the field who thought I’d be a good idea to get in his way.

  • Desert Rat

    Excellant article – one of your best. I read once that the very same words/arguments/names/etc used today against lesbians & gays were used 60 years ago in an attempt to prevent minorities from playing sports, nearly at every level. Maybe someday in a better future the whole subject will be moot.

  • Tony

    First let me state that I am pro gay rights in every way. In fact, I believe the term “gay rights” is almost insulting, as all humans are endowed equal rights and treatment in this country by various clauses in the Constitution end of story. Denying a person the right to live their lives freely because of who they have sex with is bigoted, disgusting, and Un-American.

    That being said, what about this perspective? Men are not allowed into women’s locker rooms because women would feel uncomfortable being naked around an entity that is sexually attracted or potentially sexually attracted to them. It is the combination of nudity and sexuality (especially in this country) that causes there to be men’s and women’s lockerooms. The issue I believe most athletes feel in sports (the bigots and Jesus freaks aside obviously) is that they will be naked around an entity that is sexually attracted to them. Society regularly separates the sexes because of sexual attraction, so the same regulation — which is based purely on the nudity to sexual attraction preference — would apply to people who are gay also.

    Now I’m not saying this is right. If we could all grow up and stop being prudish children in this country, the necessity for mens and womens dressing rooms, locker rooms, ect could be eliminated. But aside from such a paradigm shift in the connection between nudity and sexuality in the American consciousness, this will always be an issue unfortunately On this rare occasion, I believe this is less about redneck, Jesus-freak hating of gays and more about the sexual stigmas we have attached to nudity in general, reflected in our t.v. and other forms of censorship we readily accept.

  • Tony

    *when I typed “preference I meant reference.

  • may I say this one was a very good read, I’ve published a few of these articles on my own site including all of the athletes mentioned and more, so I’d like to repeat-good job my friend. The more word gotten out the better.

    Looking forward to the Gay “olympic” games in Cleveland


  • Excellent point about Ian Roberts there Stan.

  • STM

    Thanks Jet, I know you know the Ian Roberts story.

    It’s informative to point out here that Rugby Leagie isn’t like ordinary Rugby Union, although to play that game at the very top level you need to be a very, very tough bastard indeed.

    Professional Rugby League played at the highest level is every bit as brutal as American football, and because there are no offensive or defensive teams the starting 13 and the four bench reserves must play out the full game, so fitness is paramount too …. except it’s played without hard pads and helmets (they do use soft shoulder, chest and kidney pads and some players wear a soft helmet, especially if they’ve previously had a head injury).

    I played the game, but not at the level Robbo did, and it hurt enough at that grade, let me tell you. A litany of injuries and joints old before their time tells my story. Ian Roberts was a destroyer of other players, so I’d hated to have been smashed by him. God knows how some of those guys even keep walkiing past the age of 50. And I certainly wouldn’t -ever – be calling him a “poofter”.