Monday, October 5, 2009

When Professional Football Players Speak Out In Support of Marriage Equality

Baltimore Ravens linebacker, Brendon Ayanbadejo, wrote an article in the Huffington Post in April expressing his support for marriage equality for same-sex couples… Say what? That’s right, an NFL player speaking out publicly in support of gay marriage. His outspokenness is notable for several reasons.

NFL players rarely get engaged in public conversations about public policy issues of any kind, especially controversial ones, most especially ones that are related to support of LGBT issues. The more typical portraits of an NFL player is calling an opponent, reporter, or a teammate a “faggot” or expressing his belief that a gay man could be a drag (no pun intended) on team unity and locker room solidarity.

It’s true that more male professional sports coaches and players have spoken up in the last few years to say that having a gay teammate wouldn’t be a big deal to them. But it’s also true that others have spoken up to share their discomfort or hostility with this possibility. Think Tim Hardaway, LeBron James or Jeremy Shockey. It is also true that there has never been an openly gay professional football, baseball, basketball or ice hockey player. We know there are gay professional athletes, but so far, we never find out until after they retire.

So what are we to make of Brendon Ayanbadejo’s comments? They weren’t in response to some reporter’s question either. He initiated the article in the Huffington Post and also sent it to teammates and coaches. That’s way more significant than being ambushed in the locker room by a reporter’s unexpected question.

Here’s what I think – Brendon represents a new breed of male professional team sport athlete. His generation went to high schools in which GSA’s were part of the school’s extracurricular options. They had gay teachers (and maybe coaches too) and knew gay classmates. They see gay characters on TV. They know about openly gay politicians, entertainers, even retired gay professional athletes. They are exposed to the public discussion about gay issues – Marriage Equality, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Non-Discrimination Legislation, Hate Crimes. National polls tell us that young people are much more supportive of equality for LGBT people than older generations. Why would we expect that young football players would not be part of this trend too?

Ok, so “football culture” and male professional team sport culture are still pretty macho, misogynist and homophobic. The Brendon Ayanbadejos of the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL are probably in the minority, but they are there and they are beginning to speak up.

It’s also a lesson in challenging our own stereotypes, in this case, of football players. I once did a “homophobia” workshop with a group of coaches and in the back sat this big guy wearing a football polo shirt. He was quiet, sat with his massive arms folded across his chest for the whole workshop, his face impassive. In my mind I relegated him to the ranks of “typical” football coaches and mentally prepared myself for his challenge to the message I was trying to communicate. I expected him to stand up at some point and give a speech about how there were no “fags” in football and that’s way it should be.

Well, he did raise his hand toward the end of the workshop. I invited him to speak (preparing myself for the anticipated attack). Here is the gist of what he said, “I have a gay brother. I’ve seen him take a lot of crap from ignorant people and I can tell you, he is the toughest, most courageous man I know. I’d be honored to have him on my team. He could teach my guys something about integrity and courage. And if I ever hear any player on my team call someone a “fag” or laugh at gay people, I am in their face because they are talking about my brother and they need to learn some respect. I just won’t have it. What you are doing is great. I hope everyone here is listening.” So much for my own stereotypes. I know there are more football players out there like Brendon Ayanbadejo and the coach in that workshop. I hope we hear more from them as time goes on.

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