Let’s face it: Finding a positive role model in professional sports can be a daunting task. The industry has become a notorious stage for domestic abuse charges, rape and sexual assault cases, scandals, and plenty of other reasons to encourage young men to look up to other people.
Still, occasionally, there come those who go above and beyond their jerseys and helmets and truly inspire. People have suggested that the newer generation of men in sports is apathetic to issues that affect social welfare, that the days of Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell are long gone. But there is one man whose thoughtful and effective activism has completely sacked that narrative: Baltimore Ravens linebacker, Brendon Ayanbadejo.
Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro Bowler making his second Super Bowl appearance on Sunday, began playing for the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. The Raven has been a long-time supporter of marriage equality, equating the struggle to the fight for interracial marriage. Ayanbadejo comes from an American mother of Irish descent and his father is Nigerian. His support for passage of a marriage equality law in Maryland, however, was propelled to the national arena when MD State Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote a letter to Ravens’ owner, Steve Bisciotti, “requesting” he take “necessary action” to “inhibit such expressions” from Ayanbadejo.
“I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of the United States 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.”
This exposure gave Ayanbadejo the inadvertent attention that he wanted to help pass Question 6 in Maryland after opponents of gay marriage challenged the recently-passed gay marriage law in Maryland via referendum. Del. Burns later walked back his statements after the Ravens organization rejected the delegate’s ridiculous request.
Ayanbadejo seeks to change the tide of homophobia within the NFL and has faced an uphill battle in doing so. He took on the highly contentious issue, recognizing full-on that he may not have the support one might normally want from teammates and friends. Teammate and Ravens center, Matt Birk, spoke out loudly against gay marriage in October 2012, writing an op-ed in a Minnesota newspaper in favor of an amendment there that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Another fellow teammate, Bernard Pollard, has also spoken out against gay marriage in the past. And just the other day, the Ravens’ Super Bowl XLVII challenger San Francisco 49ers’, cornerback Chris Culliver said that a gay player would not be welcome on his team. The 49ers immediately issued a statement condemning Culliver’s comments and the player later apologized.
However, Ayanbadejo credits the league with having shifted majorly in its views on homosexuality recently and said in an interview that he “is very happy to see the tides changing in the positive.”
Ayanbadejo should feel an immense amount of pride for having contributed majorly to changing the tide. Rejecting the status quo and paving the way towards tolerance and acceptance in a profession wrought with masculine pressure is a challenge that few can successfully undertake. After Question 6 in Maryland passed on November 6, 2012, legalizing gay marriage, Ayanbadejo said it felt to him like “Christmas morning.”
But, like a true activist should, Ayanbadejo recognizes that the fight for marriage equality is far from over. In fact, numerous outlets have reported that the Raven intends to use the Super Bowl press to further push for gay rights nationally. For Ayanbadejo to be willing to put aside his own professional interests in order to advance a cause is commendable.
Brendon Ayanbadejo makes me proud to be a Marylander and a Ravens fan, makes me feel hopeful about the future of professional sports, and feel deeply excited about our chances of achieving marriage equality on a national level. Having allies with such a unique platform as Ayanbadejo is critical. Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s game, one thing is absolutely certain: The Baltimore Ravens, the National Football League, and sports fans nationwide are lucky to have such an outstanding person to claim as their own, both on and off field.
Thank you for asking everyone to do better, Brendon.