One of the most outspoken has been Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. As early as 2009, he was involved with Marylanders for Marriage Equality and publicly using his celebrity to advance the issue through public statements, video ads and more. However, it was his recent donation of Ravens tickets for a Marylanders for Marriage Equality event that caused a firestorm of political drama.
Emmett Burns Jr., a Democratic Maryland state delegate, wrote an angry letter to the owner of the Ravens, Steve Bisciotti, in response to Ayanbadejo’s charitable act. The letter read in part:
“I find it inconceivable that one of your players … would publicly endorse Same-Sex marriage, specifically, as a Raven football player. Many of my constituents and your football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide and try to sway public opinion one way or the other … I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football Franchise Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayambadejo (sic) is doing. Please give me your immediate response.”
The general public quickly came to Ayanbadejo’s aid and openly supported him. The Ravens told Ayanbadejo and the public that they would defend his right to speak out about public issues. Other NFL players have also actively supported Ayanbadejo, not only in his right to speak without fear of reprisal from his employer or government, but in support of marriage equality.
The most powerful statement of support came from a fellow NFL player, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. Kluwe has been producing radio ads and using his sports celebrity status to help defeat a Minnesota constitutional amendment that would ban marriage equality.
Outraged by Burns’ attempt to pressure a person to curb his political speech by leveraging his employer against him, and by Burns’ willful disregard for history and discriminatory policy view, Kluwe unloaded in an open letter on Deadspin. The entire (not safe for work) letter is a must-read, but here are some highlights:
“I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of Maryland’s state government. Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level.”
“What on earth would possess you to be so mind-bogglingly stupid? It baffles me that a man such as yourself, a man who relies on that same First Amendment to pursue your own religious studies without fear of persecution from the state, could somehow justify stifling another person’s right to speech. To call that hypocritical would be to do a disservice to the word.”
“Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different than you, or act different than you? How does gay marriage, in any way shape or form, affect your life?”
“I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful c—monster. They won’t even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population – rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?”
Kluwe’s piece quickly went viral across the Internet, and the public pressure against Burns finally got him to back down. Delegate Burns publicly stated that Brendon Ayanbadejo and other athletes have the right to free speech and to use their status to raise awareness about issues they find important.
While the concern about chilling of free speech has subsided, what has endured is a number of football players publicly echoing the sentiments of inclusion and acceptance … and the chorus continues to build. Kluwe put it well in a recent interview: “As athletes, we have this very prominent platform where we can affect social change and I think it behooves all of us to do the right thing.”
Photo: Baltimore Ravens player Brendon Ayanbadejo. Keith Allison CC 2.0