Brendon Ayanbadejo is a 10-year NFL veteran who last played with the Super Bowl XLVII champion Baltimore Ravens and is a staunch supporter of same-sex marriage rights. In August 2012, Maryland state delegate Emmett Burns Jr. wrote an open letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti requesting Ayanbadejo cease and desist all public support of marriage equality after Ayanbadejo donated Ravens tickets to help fundraise for marriage equality in Maryland. A law allowing same-sex marriages in the state eventually passed in late 2012 and took effect Jan. 1.
While the equality treadmill under most of our feet is moving at a high rate of speed, I would imagine this journey is not traveling fast enough for many Americans whose lives are directly impacted by the possibility of change.
Consider tennis hall of famer Billie Jean King, who was outed in 1981 when her relationship with another woman became public, and Greg Louganis, the four-time Olympic gold medal-winning American diver, who came out some seven years after King.
With more than 55 years combined of public scrutiny of their sexuality, the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which restricts some federal marriage benefits to only opposite-sex couples, and Prop 8, California’s state law restricting same-sex marriage can’t come soon enough for these two American heroes and California residents who have forever shaped the face of their respective sports.
Yet, we still have such a long journey ahead of us. Draconian policies such as “don’t ask, don’t tell” are a thing of the past, and with the quickly approaching U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the repeal of DOMA and Prop 8 in June, it appears as if we are on the precipice of a more progressive and accepting America.
It is quite hard to fathom that, in two years, we have nearly doubled the amount of states that have legalized marriage equality. In this time, New York, Maryland, Maine and Washington have approved same-sex marriage, bringing the total number of states that allow it to nine, as well as the District of Columbia.
Equal marriage rights are on the radar for Illinois, Delaware, Rhode Island and nine other states by the end of 2014. A March 2013 FOX News poll on same-sex marriage shows that 49 percent of Americans believe in same-sex marriage while 46 percent are in opposition. Support is up 32 percent from 2003.
While LGBTQ Americans can bravely and proudly serve our country in battle and even die protecting our freedom overseas, it is still perfectly legal in 29 states, to fire someone because he or she is a part of the LGBTQ community.
LGBTQ Americans do not, under DOMA, currently have any federal rights. There are so many things wrong with this picture. And, as many of us openly support and fight for equal rights in this community, we are also left asking ourselves questions about why many who identify as LGBT or Q are still so hesitant to join the fight.
Brittney Griner came out on Thursday, saying people should “just be who you are.” But being who you are in the four major professional sports isn’t accepted.
When will a male athlete come out in the NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL?
Even as it appears American pop culture is ready to accept a gay male athlete, the stratified sporting culture might not be quite as keen on the idea of our favorite NFL player scoring touchdowns on Sundays and celebrating in Chelsea (NYC) or Hillcrest (San Diego) on Sunday nights with his boys after a hard-fought victory.
I certainly wouldn’t have a problem with it.
Corporate America doesn’t, either.
Corporate America is frothing at the mouth, waiting for a gay superstar to take the sporting culture by the reins. Companies such as Levi’s, American Airlines, Google, and Starbucks are huge money makers, but also morality moguls in corporate America, having been rated in the top LGBTQ friendly corporations.
And just like the infamous “Bo knows” marketing campaign by Nike, I could also see a sneaker and apparel giant backing a superstar athlete with a “gay is great” campaign.
Make no mistake, the LGBTQ community’s buying power is something corporate America is keeping its eye on. The overall spending power of this growing demographic is projected to be well over $2 trillion in 2013, by some estimations.
I personally have stopped patronizing all retailers that are not LGBTQ friendly. Not only are these corporations losing out on LGBTQ dollars, but also straight dollars from family and friends of the LGBTQ community.
The most important company yet to weigh in on the issue of gays in sports is the NFL itself.
The NFL is the most popular and most-watched sport in the U.S., capturing some 59 percent of the entire U.S. population as viewers. With 1,696 players on its opening day rosters, the NFL is also the largest professional sports league in North America.
The NHL has 690 players; the NBA has 450 players; and MLB has 750 players total on its 25-man rosters, for a total of 1,890 professional athletes.
The lowest estimations say that about three percent of the population at large is gay. If you extrapolate that number across these 3,586 pro athletes, that would equate to 107 or 108 professional gay athletes, with 50 or 51 of them in the NFL.
Yet to this day we still have not heard of an athlete coming out during his playing career in any of our four professional sports. The NHL has a leg up on the other three leagues because of its alliance with the “You Can Play Foundation” that supports LGBTQ athletes.
The other three leagues have a faint footprint, or none at all, in supporting or aligning with a LGBTQ organization.
What are they waiting for?
If we hope to close one of the last closets in America, I would call upon the NFL to be proactive and align with an LGBTQ organization, something that it has not done publicly yet.
When the NFL does take such action, maybe players will be more at liberty to feel not only that they can be themselves at the workplace, but also that their employer has their best interest at heart and not just the bottom line. I would even argue that profits would increase if there were a gay player on the roster. At the end of the day, I have played with several gay athletes in my tenure with the NFL. I just didn’t know it!
This is the first in a series of articles Ayanbadejo will be doing for FOXSports.com. You can follow Brendon Ayanbadejo on Twitter at @brendon310.