NFL 2012: Sports Fans Should Stand in Support of Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe

Bryan KalbroskyCorrespondent ISeptember 10, 2012

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 18:  Brendan Ayanbadejo #51 of the Baltimore Ravens looks on during his team's 34-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers during their NFL Game on December 18, 2011 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

When Emmett C. Burns Jr. told the Baltimore Ravens ownership that Brendon Ayanbadejo should be silenced, his statement was a fundamental attack on sports.

The overwhelming support for Ayanbadejo has helped the representative recant his words in recent days. With the first Sunday of NFL football of the 2012 season under way, it was this story that caught my attention the most. Burns, 72, is currently serving his fourth term as an elected representative in the Maryland House of Delegates. Ayanbadejo, 37, is a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens.

"Upon reflection, he has his First Amendment rights," Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., explained to The Baltimore Sun. "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."

What the government official initially seemed to be misunderstanding, however, is that Ayanbadejo had every right to speak about the issues that he feels passionately about. For fans of the NFL, it should only be seen as logical to support players like Ayanbadejo and their fundamental right to speak.

With an upcoming ballot in November to decide on the legalization of gay marriage in Maryland, Ayanbadejo had been active in the community. Following a pro-gay marriage commercial and an incident in which he left two tickets for the Ravens home opener to the "Marylanders for Marriage Equality" fundraiser, Burns sent an angry letter to the owner of the Ravens, asking him to force Ayanbadejo to be silenced.

"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. “Many of my constituents and your football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide and try to sway public opinion one way or the other.”

It should hardly be 'inconceivable' that a grown man has formulated his very own opinion on a relevant issue to the Baltimore community given that the state of Maryland lawmakers have approved to legalize gay marriage in 2013.

Regardless of his profession, showing support for a measure approved in March that will be voted on in November is not something to be appalled over. It ought to be seen as the opposite: celebrated for the courage displayed in a medium (read: the National Football League) that typically shies away from speaking their mind on such pressing issues.

The blatant hatred and “big brother-ism” that Burns is single-handedly promoting shows an extreme lack of respect to the individualism of the NFL athlete. Ayanbadejo simply spoke his mind. Burns disagreed and called for his public shaming.

"Many of your fans are opposed to such a view and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment and excitement," Burns continued. "I believe Mr. Ayanbadejo should concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fan base.”

As Burns asks Ayanbadejo to essentially cease and desist from releasing such a statement in the future, he turns the existence of the athlete into that of a silenced puppet, dancing on the field like that of a gladiator.

Just ask NFL punter Chris Kluwe how he feels about the issue, as he published a strongly worded open letter via Deadspin.

“Have you not heard of Kenny Washington? Jackie Robinson? As recently as 1962, the NFL still had segregation, which was only done away with by brave athletes and coaches daring to speak their mind and do the right thing, and you're going to say that political views have ‘no place in a sport’? I can't even begin to fathom the cognitive dissonance that must be coursing through your rapidly addled mind right now.”

Kluwe makes a great observation. By asking an NFL athlete to shy away from all political activism, thus eliminates the entire relationship of political significance and activism in sports, instead promoting a union of muzzled stars content with blind acceptance.

Wait a second. That sounds a lot like a fascist state of widespread bigotry if you ask me. Perhaps if Burns were to look up the definition of bigotry he would be in for a bit of a shock. Bigotry is defined as: “intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself” or in other words, exactly what Emmett C. Burns promotes with his attempted censorship of Ayanbadejo.

Unfortunately for Burns, as we’ve entered the 21st century, much of the bigotry and xenophobia has been admonished in public discourse.

Just take the statement from Domonique Foxworth, the President of the NFL Players Association.

“I don’t know if I can come up with a strong enough word, but his request was asinine. A player should do what they’re comfortable with,” said Foxworth, a former teammate of Ayanbadejo. “I don’t think football players are different than any other human beings, with the exception of having a large platform. I think that’s all the reason to speak out. Whether people agree with what you’re saying or not, it’s your right to say it. I don’t think any social issues have been solved by silencing one group.”

To put a real, identifiable face on the relevant issue was a bold move by Ayanbadejo and one that should be supported by the majority of NFL players. Even if they don’t agree with him on this issue, they should agree with the fact that they are allowed to speak freely.

"Football is just my job it's not who I am. I am an American before anything. And just like every American I have the right to speak!!!" tweeted Ayanbadejo.

NFL players have come out with overwhelming support for Ayanbadejo thus far, most notably in the aforementioned letter by Chris Kluwe.

“I think the culture in the NFL has become a lot more tolerant in the last 10 years or so,” Kluwe told the New York Times. “There’s a younger generation coming in every year or two, and they make me hopeful of the future.” 

Kluwe speaks brilliantly of the social issue. Four years ago, Ayanbadejo wrote a similarly strong sentiment in the Huffington Post that was ridiculed and met with hatred. This year, the progress that the league has shown has been astonishingly admirable.

There's a changing of the guard in the NFL in regards to how the league is responding to gay marriage. On a social level, the work that has been done in the past few years has been outstanding to say the least. The efforts that a heterosexual man, Brendon Ayanbadejo, has made along the way has been groundbreaking.

“I think Brendon’s commendable,” continued Foxworth. “To step out into the fire and say something controversial, that’s not something that comes lightly.”

The support continued to trickle in for Ayanbadejo. 

“We support Brendon’s right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment,” said Baltimore Ravens President Dick Cass.

The overwhelming support in recent days has been extremely positive for Brendon Ayanbadejo. He and Kluwe both received extraordinarily positive remarks via Twitter from fans and (more impressively non-fans) of the NFL around the word.

"It turned a bad situation into a momentous, game-changing occasion for NFL athletes," said Ayanbadejo. "In a sport ruled by machismo, it was a changing of the guard that I've been waiting to hear since I stated my support for this cause in 2008.

"I hear everybody backing me up, not just in football, but outside the football community. To hear everybody backing me up and leaving the whole machismo thing behind, that's progress."

Many feel that work is not over, arguing that it takes people with mainstream power (e.g. an NFL player like Brendon Ayanbadejo) to speak out to help the issue of gay marriage evolve from a political issue to one of a human rights issue.

"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," said Chris Kluwe via his Deadspin letter.

"The fight is not about same sex marriage or interracial marriage or slavery or equal rights for women. The fight is for equality for all!" said Ayanbadejo via Twitter on Aug. 30.

Ayanbadejo speaks of something much bigger than sports when he speaks of gay marriage. He speaks of humanity, and he speaks of fundamental rights of a human being.

"It’s an equality issue. I see the big picture," Ayanbadejo said. "There was a time when women didn't have rights. Black people didn't have rights. Right now, gay rights are a big issue and it's been for a long time. We're slowly chopping down the barriers to equality."

As the support from the NFL continues to be shown for Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe, so too should fans. Athletes have the fundamental right to speak, and support the issues that they feel passionately about. For Brendon Ayanbadejo, that’s gay marriage. In the opening weekend of the NFL, it’s been the story that has been the most inspiring. The culture of the NFL is evolving into something much more beneficial to the future of a progressive society, and football is helping that image.

Take a stand. Continue to show the support that Brendon Ayanbadejo deserves.