Ayanbadejo continues speaking out for gay rights
Ravens linebacker/special teams star Brendon Ayanbadejo has once again publicly advocated for gay rights, this time in a column appearing on recently launched ESPNW.
The column, written by Jane McManus (who was, full disclosure, a professor of mine at Columbia) attempts to address whether a gay player could ever succeed (survive?) in the NFL. As you probably know, no player has ever come out publicly while playing in the league (or in Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League, for that matter).
Ayanbadejo has been "outspoken" -- such a tortured term -- since his days at UCLA, and earlier this year filmed a commercial urging Marylanders to vote to legalize gay marriage.
In the piece, Ayanbadejo backs a popular theory on how the first gay athlete might find a way to go public: be a star.
Ayanbadejo said it would be harder to exclude an all-star who came out than a player clinging to a roster spot. Just as players who have exceptional skills don't have to follow every rule, a gay player at the top of his sport would probably not face as much derision.
"If someone is a great player, things become invisible," Ayanbadejo said.
There's something to that thought. You figure many more home-town fans would support a gay player who contributes important tackles/hits/baskets/goals. A gay All-Star keeps the issue in the fore-front, and more robustly counters gay stereotypes. But he also becomes the ultimate banner-carrier and abuse-taker. He'd be in high demand for interviews and speaking engagements, and opposing fans (as well as anti-gay groups in each city) would make him a constant target of abuse.
The common corollary most people point to is Jackie Robinson, who bravely broke the color barrier and faced many of the same issues. But Robinson was representing a large group that had more openly been discriminated against. There were black teams playing across the country, and numerous players who were clearly of Major League quality. Robinson went first, but he knew he wouldn't be alone for long.
A gay player, though, would appear largely out of a vacuum.
As a graduate student, I ended up working on a long project about gay rugby. It was -- the quiet suburban-raised kid in me is ashamed to admit -- the first time I'd had any long conversations with gay men (or women). The rugby community I ended up writing about was robust, with probably 50 or so players from various backgrounds. They were a close group, even by rugby team standards, because they were bound by much more than a game.
A good number of them had, long before, made the decision to hide their sexual preference because of their interest in sports. They'd never wanted to appear to be even veering toward the edge of the masculine world their teams created.
That same atmosphere drove others away completely. They spent their lives avoiding sports until hearing about the gay rugby movement. Many who may have grown into fine athletes stayed away from even trying; ironically, by their late teenage years they yearned to fit in with a gay culture that they feared might reject "jocks."
It's not like an elite athlete would find a more welcoming environment in college. Consider that there are some 12,000 Division I football players, and not one of them has come out publicly.
A gay player would have few, if any, other gay players to lean on for support. There's no movement toward making the world of big-time athletics more accepting of gay men. It appears that the job would be the ultimate individual effort, to play off a sports cliche.
Only significant societal change -- even more significant than what we've seen in the last 20 years -- will create a culture in which a gay athlete -- star or not -- can feel secure discussing his orientation. That Maryland law Ayanbadejo pushed for failed, after all. It's telling that it took ESPNW -- described as "ESPN's first business dedicated to serving female athletes and fans" -- for the issue to be brought up. Though, to be fair, ESPN does employ one of the few openly gay sports writers in the country, LZ Granderson. And The Washington Post has addressed the issue recently. Granderson posited two years ago that the first known gay athlete won't become so because he chooses so; these days, he's likely to be outed by an aggressive media entity.
You'll notice that at the end of that story, Granderson name drops two NFL players who had spoken out about being accepting of a gay teammate: Ayanbadejo and New Orleans saints linebacker Scott Fujita. So, the same two guys quoted in McManus' column.
In the story, she quotes several NFL players who say that the jocularity of the locker room might be difficult for a gay man to deal with. Being a homosexual would provide ammo that other players wouldn't even need. The culture, we're told, is one in which players "mess" with each other as a way of bonding and bridging differences.
But we're not anywhere near the point when those differences can include a player opting to enter into a relationship of, as Ayanbadejo put it, "love and commitment" with another man.
Maybe, though, you see it differently. Thoughts, as always, are welcomed below.