Opinion: Advocacy acceptance goes case-by-case in NFL
After reading my friend and colleague Chris Kluwe’s Deadspin article, I felt compelled to share my NFL experience and how starkly different it was from his when it came to my advocacy as a NFL player with the Baltimore Ravens. After all, I am part of the reason he was in such deep water after writing a brilliantly scathing article to Maryland’s delegate Emmett Burns in September 2012.
The most important thing about my work with Chris is that we are not advocating for gay rights. We are advocating for the equal treatment of all human beings. Through the years we have progressed as a nation and have improved our civility for minority ethnicities, children, women, handicapped, and countless other minority groups. A specific cross-section of our population has continually been left behind — until now.
It just so happens to be the LGBTQ community. Had I been a product of the ’50s, I would have been advocating for all of the above as would Chris.
My time in Baltimore is totally opposite of what Chris wrote he experienced in Minnesota when it came to advocacy.
I started publicly supporting marriage equality in 2009. When I showed up for spring ball that offseason, one of my teammates had heard I was coming out and he addressed me about the situation in front of a group of guys while we are on the football field.
At that moment, I will not lie, I felt vulnerable as they laughed at me. I instantly felt the need to defend myself and proclaim my straightness, similar to how we heard Aaron Rodgers professing how much he loves women this week.
It took me several years before I was confident and comfortable enough to say to my teammates and others: Does it really matter? And, better yet, is it any of your business?
As spring passed and fall came, the Ravens had facilitated a relationship through Chad Steele and their media relations department with myself and various LGBTQ groups. The one I took to the most was Equality Maryland and our collective push to have marriage equality passed in our state. We failed in 2010, but in 2011 we managed to get it on the 2012 ballot for Maryland voters to pass or shoot down.
Previously, in 2008, my first year with the Ravens, Coach John Harbaugh allowed me to organize a Rock The Vote non-partisan voters registration at our practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. We registered several players and employees.
My philanthropic endeavors didn’t stop there as I was the team ambassador for NFL Play 60, encouraging legislation to pass 60 minutes of physical activity in the curriculum of public schools. Per CBA rules, every NFL player is obligated to seven community related functions. I wanted to influence as many different sections of the local community to make a difference. I even engaged in a campaign to stop animal abuse.
One day after practice during the 2010 season, I had a talk with Coach Harbaugh over a meal in the team cafeteria. We didn’t necessarily meet eye-to-eye on marriage equality but we walked away from the conversation with a good feeling and that we were able to discuss such a polarizing issue while still maintaining a good friendship and a mutual respect as we moved forward in our mission to win a championship together.
Fast forward to 2012. The Ravens continued to feed me requests from LGBTQ community outreach groups, media, and anything else related to the community. I usually dedicated Tuesday, my off-day, to all my different community service appearances.
Through the Ravens, I had been introduced to an amazing lady named Susan Luchey who worked for the University of Baltimore at the time. She was in charge of several leadership clubs on campus. We had been working together since 2009. We shared the same birthday, goals, and like-mindedness.
An ambitious undergrad named Josh Patel was part of the LGBTQ club on campus. He had been at some of the leadership forums at which I spoke. Josh reached out and asked me if I would like to partake in fundraising efforts to get marriage equality passed in Maryland.
Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to help the community. Our loss the year before in attaining marriage equality was fresh in my mind, with a second chance it was like the Ravens playing in the AFC Championship Game two years in a row and defeat was not an option.
I ponied up two tickets to a Ravens home game. I never asked Josh how Emmett Burns found out about my ticket donation to the cause, but if straight people, particularly reverends that happened to also be public officials were hearing about the goings on in the LGBTQ community, Josh was doing a hell of a job marketing these Ravens tickets.
A few days later my Twitter feed blew up. People are cheering on Kluwe and berating Burns. The spit hit the fan. His letter in my defense and his unwavering support of a disenfranchised group ultimately led to a coach, an authority figure who often times took on a fatherly type role for many players, becoming his alleged abuser.
The few letters the Vikings organization received from bigoted Americans outweighed the hundreds supporting Kluwe and his actions. I went through the same thing. For every 100 letters of praise there was only one of insult.
In fact, Ravens president Dick Cass went above and beyond to let me know that I was doing the right thing and to continue to be myself in support of good. Several coaches like Marwaan Mallouf and Randy Brown, to name a couple, commended me.
In our locker room, we had plenty of players that respectfully disagreed with my views.
One in particular that has been public about his belief of marriage as between one man and one woman, happens to be a Minnesotan, Matt Birk.
Matt and I never sat down and talked one on one about our differences but we did engage on a couple occasions when several religious players attempted to have an intervention in the locker room.
As I compared the fight for equality in the LGBTQ community to the civil rights movements, the guys all snarled, snared and laughed, saying how dare I compare the LGBTQ community to the struggle of the African- American community.
They just didn’t get it. Neither did Birk, and he certainly didn’t accept it. As they looked down on me for my views of equality I reiterated to them that the Bible was no different than the Iliad or Star Wars. If you believe in the Jedi or Christ it is your First Amendment right to practice or not practice any religion of your choice.
I will always fight for our rights to do both, but I refuse to use rights granted to me to take away rights from others.
We agreed to disagree but this forged a stronger bond with one another. Before you knew it we were debating Obama-Romney, drones, Benghazi, Iraq, all sorts of political and religious issues. Nothing was off the table. My conversation with Harbaugh had come full circle.
To my surprise, one day the coach brought up marriage equality. His views had become a bit more progressive. He stated that, as long as churches are not forced to marry same-sex couples against their belief system, he was OK with the new law in Maryland. I assured him there was no infringement on the First Amendment and this is not a religious issue. This is purely a state issue and doesn’t affect religion nor should it.