The dust-up involving the Baltimore Ravens' Brendon Ayanbadejo and the Maryland Legislature's Emmett C. Burns Jr. suggests it’s time to reevaluate what we know about professional sports and gay marriage — if we knew much to begin with.
“As a Delegate to the Maryland General Assembly and a Baltimore Ravens Football fan, I find it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Brendon Ayanbadejo, would publicly endorse Same-Sex marriage, specifically, as a Raven Football player,” wrote Burns, a Democrat and a Baptist pastor. He proceeded to argue that it was not Ayanbadejo’s place as a linebacker to step into a controversial political issue. (Ayanbadejo has written op-eds and appeared in TV ads supporting gay marriage.)
“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," Burns wrote. In closing, he added, “I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing.”
He does now.
In addition to statements from Baltimore owner Bisciotti and NFL Players Assn. President Domonique Foxworth — which supported the Baltimore linebacker’s right to speak his mind — Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe has joined in with a foul-mouthed Deadspin op-ed in support of Ayanbadejo and against Burns that has gone massively viral.
“As I suspect you have not read the Constitution, I would like to remind you that the very first, the VERY FIRST Amendment in this founding document deals with the freedom of speech, particularly the abridgment of said freedom,” Kluwe writes to Burns.
“By using your position as an elected official (when referring to your constituents so as to implicitly threaten the Ravens organization) to state that the Ravens should ‘inhibit such expressions from your employees,’ more specifically Brendon Ayanbadejo, not only are you clearly violating the First Amendment, you also come across as a [slang term for a bodily byproduct not repeatable in the Los Angeles Times].”
Much of the rest of Kluwe’s letter is unprintable here, and most of his tone exhibits a degree of aggression that, as a punter, he wouldn't have the ability to reproduce on-field: “P.S. I've also been vocal as hell about the issue of gay marriage so you can take your ‘I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing’ and shove it in your close-minded, totally lacking in empathy piehole and choke on it. [Expletive].”
As of Sunday night, Burns didn't do that, but he did something metaphorically similar to it, telling the Baltimore Sun: “Upon reflection, he has his First Amendment rights. And I have my First Amendment rights. … Each of us has the right to speak our opinions. The football player and I have a right to speak our minds."
Observers will undoubtedly disagree over whether a profanity-laced jeremiad is the right way to speak up for a cause. But one of the most notable elements of this scrum has been players’ willingness to publicly stick their necks out for LGBT rights; professional sports culture has long been dominated by its own silence on homosexuality, when not breaking it with outright homophobia.
Yet as public support for gay marriage has slowly but surely found its way into the political mainstream, recent years have seen walls crumble in some of America’s most sexually conservative institutions. NFL players winning a public battle with a politician over gay marriage comes not long after Barack Obama became the first president to openly endorse gay marriage, perhaps reading the tea leaves that said it had become politically advantageous for him to do so.
Then there was singer Frank Ocean announcing his love for a man, which — as with Kluwe’s tirade — met with widespread popular support rather than a blacklisting in the hetero-minded R&B; community. And that’s changed perspectives about what’s socially possible in the boardrooms of the music business, much as some see Kluwe’s outburst as a reflection of change in the wide world of sports.
This time it was Burns who was left out to dry, not Ayanbadejo, who has thanked the swarm of supporters who rallied around him. In response to Burns' retraction, he told the Baltimore Sun he hoped the delegate would "open his heart" on this issue.
Others are now opening their hearts to the NFL.
“The idea many of us have in our heads ... that the macho world of sports is resistant to notions of tolerance — an idea that Burns was certainly counting on — is an increasingly outdated one,” Mary Elizabeth Williams writes for Salon. “Thank God.”
On a somewhat unrelated note, another new thing: punters having opinions.
The winds of change.