An NFL champion advocates for gay rights in pro sports

Updated
By Bethany E. Frank
X in the second half of an NFL football game in Baltimore, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011.
X in the second half of an NFL football game in Baltimore, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011.
AP Photo/Nick Wass

Workplaces across the country are moving to end discrimination against the LGBT population. One of the most challenging industries for LGBT employees is the sports world. In an environment where homophobia still runs rampant, Baltimore Ravens linebacker and Super Bowl champion Brendon Ayanbadejo is taking the initiative to bring light to the issue of gay rights.

One historically-homophobic arena that recently went through a significant shift in its attitude toward the LGBT community is the military. Throughout much of American history, gay men and women were explicitly banned from serving in the armed forces because it was believed that their presence would “create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” In 1993, the federal government reached a compromise and passed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The new policy outlawed discrimination against service members who kept details of their sexual orientation private; however, openly-gay citizens were still barred from serving in the military. Although its passage was a step in the right direction, critics argued that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” did not go far enough. One of the most notable victories gay rights advocates have won in recent years is the repeal of the policy.

Though gay and lesbian athletes are not barred by law from participating in pro-sports leagues, the sports industry is at a similar crossroads. There is not a single openly-gay active athlete in the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB. “The sports world is the last closet in America,” writes Ayanbadejo. Some athletes have talked about their discomfort with the idea of having gay teammates. Ayanbadejo hopes to encourage professional athletes who might be hiding their sexual orientation to open up about it, and wants them to know that they will be respected, supported and valued no matter what. After his team’s win over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, the Ravens linebacker rushed to reach out to prominent gay rights advocates to learn how he could use the oncoming media exposure to help the cause.

Brendon Ayanbadejo joined The Cycle  to discuss his work. When asked why he is so passionate about gay rights, Ayanbadejo said he knows what facing discrimination feels like. To him, it isn’t about gay rights, but human rights. “It’s something we need to take care of, and it’s going to take people like myself,” he said. While he’s been the target of criticism and jeers from fellow NFL players, Ayanbadejo still hopes to spark conversations that lead to greater acceptance.

Ayanbadejo serves as an ambassador for Athlete Ally, an organization committed to encouraging everyone involved in sports to respect all members of their communities, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identification. Meanwhile, he hopes his Super Bowl championship will provide him with a bigger platform to spread his message.

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An NFL champion advocates for gay rights in pro sports

Updated