NFL needs to positively approach future gay players

by Max Miller – Staff Writer – nmiller@unca.edu

This week, Brendon Ayanbadejo, a backup linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, did the unthinkable. He had the unmitigated audacity to show his support for a Maryland amendment that would legalize same-sex unions.

His beliefs stood in contrast to less progressive comments from San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, who exhibited textbook stereotypical jock homophobia by expressing disgust at the prospect of sharing a locker room with a gay teammate.

Those who support gay marriage will never change everyone’s opinion, and there will always be homophobes, just as there will always be bigots of every stripe. But football culture influences a fair swath of the American population, which inherits the sport’s narrow-minded traditions of outstanding machismo. Ayanbadejo’s tolerant views serve as a courageous opposition to deep-set prejudices, and could be instrumental in swaying other players and fans to be unafraid to support homosexuality.

Last summer, professional football appeared poised to score points for tolerance when 49ers Ahmad Brooks, Ricky Jean-Francois, Isaac Sopoaga and Donte Whitner participated in a public service announcement for the It Gets Better campaign, which supports LGBTQ teens as they deal with issues like bullying and identity.

However, in the wake of Culliver’s comments, both Brooks and Sopoaga have made public denials of their support for the campaign, prompting founder Dan Savage to remove the video from the program’s website.

Brooks went on to state he participated in the video under the impression that it was an anti-bullying public service announcement, implying he is opposed to bullying, but unwilling to specifically support the challenge faced by many LGBT adolescents.

This case is especially disappointing because the 49ers support of the It Gets Better program could have been a wonderful direct appeal to teenagers, both straight and gay, to combat established stereotypes about athletes fostering homophobic tendencies.

These players’ hypocrisy, coupled with Culliver’s distasteful remarks, prove disconcerting for promoters of tolerance who would be thrilled to see the support of the NFL. Culliver has since taken back his comments, but in doing so he has more or less admitted he made them out of a sense of obligatory macho homophobia.

This is the core of the issue. Most NFL players are afraid to voice a tolerant view on gay rights because of the perception that doing so would somehow breach an unspoken contract of jock etiquette. They feel it is expected they should not rock the boat on such touchy subjects.

This is what makes Ayanbadejo’s unflinching adherence to his beliefs so refreshing. He is completely unconcerned with “Average Joe Football’s” reaction. He would rather try to fight for a new status quo than preserve the outdated old one.

His actions have begun to influence his fellow teammates as well. Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said his team would easily welcome an openly gay player, and the Ravens in general have fashioned themselves as progressive in contrast to the controversies surrounding the 49ers, who are, coincidentally, their opponents in Super Bowl XVLII.

With luck, this trend will prove to be more than a Super Bowl publicity stunt, and players for the Ravens and other teams will find the courage to stand up for what they believe in, whether it streamlines with the current NFL audiences’ dogma or not.

Suggs appears to believe the future looks bright in this regard. He said Culliver’s quickness to apologize for his ignorant comments is a sign he is ready to turn over a new leaf. While Culliver’s hasty redaction and subsequent affirmation he supports gay rights appears to be an attempt at saving face, Suggs has a point in saying there is a silver lining to this gaffe.

The reaction to Culliver’s statements is encouraging, and Culliver’s need to backpedal proves even he recognized his comments were rooted in blind homophobia rather than his true beliefs. Realizing that it is unfair to exclude a player because of one’s own anxieties is a step in the right direction.

Ayanbadejo’s courage and the support fans have shown him for it will be a major factor in helping football fans feel comfortable supporting LGBTQ rights. The backlash against 49ers like Culliver, Brooks and Sopoaga shows the battle is on its way to being won.

Now is the time for football players and fans alike to take a look inside themselves and see past the fear and past decades of entrenched conservatism to realize gay people in this country deserve equal rights.

 

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