I’m a huge football fan—American football—college, professional, doesn’t matter. In my household, Saturdays and Sundays (and Monday & Thursday nights) are all about the pigskin. In the past couple of weeks, there have been some amazing equality-related events revolving around the game of football in our country. Turns out, not all big jocks are homophobic jerks, as we’ve been led to believe. Way cool!
Here’s the question: Does a pro football player have the right to speak out about social or political issues they believe in? If they share their opinion, should they be at risk of losing their job when the wrong person disagrees?
Consider Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who came out publicly in support of a Maryland referendum on gay marriage last month, drawing ire of Maryland House of Delegates Member Emmett C. Burns. Burns wrote to Ravens owner, Steve Biscotti, that he “found it inconceivable that Ayanbadejo would publicly endorse Same-Sex marriage, specifically as a Ravens football player.” Is Burns implying that it’s inconceivable that a football player should support equality? He said further, “I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football League Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing.”
Injurious actions? Exactly whom is Mr. Ayanbadejo injuring by supporting equality? The Baltimore Ravens? The NFL? The State of Maryland? Delegate Burns? Well, as it turns out, I’m not the only one wondering. Next up is Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, who defended Ayanbadejo and wrote a letter lambasting Delegate Burns for his bigotry. In a very colorfully worded response to Burns, Kluwe rightly calls the question on both Ayanbedejo’s right to speak freely about his beliefs and gay marriage, by reminding us that as recently as the 1960’s pro sports were still segregated institutions. That changed in no small part due to the outspoken players such as Jackie Robinson.
We’ve talked here about the importance of lesbian and gay public figures coming out and the positive affect on the lives of countless people. These are outstanding examples of our straight allies having the courage to speak out about our human rights. Delegate Burns is correct when he says that it is unusual for a member of the NFL to speak publicly on issues such as marriage equality. That is what makes the words of public figures, these professional athletes—our gridiron heroes, even more potent. These men are showing great character in taking a stand for equality, when they clearly could remain silent. Their willingness to speak about equality to their fans, many of them conservative and clinging to irrational biases, is a positive force that cannot be understated.
I sincerely hope the NFL, nor their respective teams give these players any grief for their comments. After all, nobody is calling for the censuring of Tim Tebow when he supports Focus on the Family or other anti-gay groups. Or are NFL players only allowed to speak their minds when Mr. Burns and those like him agree with the message? Should the NFL or individual teams prohibit players from giving their personal opinions on matters outside the game? I don’t know. However, the point is that either players can speak openly about their personal beliefs or not; you can’t have it both ways.
“Its an equality issue. I see the big picture,” Ayanbadejo says. “There was a time when women didn’t have rights. Black people didn’t have rights. Right now, gay rights is a big issue and it’s been for a long time. We’re slowly chopping down the barriers to equality.” For me, Kluwe gets the last word. Topping off his very animated, pro-equality letter he said this: “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.”
Amen to that. I’m not a Vikings fan, but I’m thinking my next NFL purchase is going to be a purple number 5 jersey.
Thanks for reading