Ayanbadejo stands up for gay rights
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has forged a 10-year NFL career as one of the league’s best special-teams players.
Ultimately, this isn’t what he will be remembered for most.
Ayanbadejo has drawn mainstream attention with his championing of homosexual rights, which has long been a taboo topic among his peers. Ayanbadejo’s support of a gay marriage referendum which passed last month in Maryland became a lightning rod of controversy among some politicians and even his Ravens teammates.
In the following interview, Ayanbadejo — a 36-year-old, married, straight father of two children — talks about his football career and history of involvement in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) causes.
Q: You’re one of the NFL’s oldest linebackers. What is the key to survival?
Ayanbadejo: “More than anything, it’s staying healthy. People always talk about the type of player that you need, whether it’s, ‘I need a guy that’s fast. I need a guy that’s strong. I need a guy that’s smart.’ Nah. You need a guy that’s healthy more than how dynamic your ability is.”
Q: How did you grow playing three seasons (2000 to 2002) in Canada and why couldn’t you stick in the NFL initially in 1999?
Ayanbadejo: “Nobody invested in me. If one coach wouldn’t have just sat there and said, ‘OK, I’m looking at this guy run down the field. He’s faster than every single person. But he doesn’t necessarily know what he’s doing, so we’re going to cut him anyway’ … Coaches have come up to me who had cut me in the past and said, ‘I wish you played for me.’ I said, ‘S---, I did play for you, but you cut me.’
“In Canada, the second they saw me running faster than everybody, they thought, ‘We’ve got to put him on the field.’ They put me anywhere they could to try and figure out where I could play. They put me on special teams. They put me at defensive end. I made some plays, but I wasn’t that good. And then when I went to a different team (British Columbia), they put me at linebacker, and I dominated. I was All-CFL, and it took off from there.”
Q: GQ Magazine recently celebrated you as an “Honorary Gay” for your championing of homosexual rights. What are your thoughts on that?
Ayanbadejo: “It’s like being an honorary knight or an honorary Ph.D. You belong to the club, but you’re actually not part of the club (laughs). I wish I was an honorary billionaire, but I probably wouldn’t get the billion dollars.
“Actually, it’s an award I really embrace. I have broad shoulders. I know what it’s like to feel ridiculed. But at the same time, when people make fun of me, I know I’m on the right side of history. A lot of people said, ‘He’s honorary gay! Is he gay? Oh, you’re gay! Who would want to be honorary gay?’ But I know when we look back at all these people who are against gay rights, it will be like looking at people who wore white for the Ku Klux Klan. That’s basically how I identify it.”
Q: When and why did this subject become so important for you?
Ayanbadejo: “It’s always been important to me, but I didn’t become the ambassador that I am until around 2009. Even when I was just voicing my opinion then, I didn’t expect anything to come of it nor did I expect to be a so-called ‘ambassador.’ Actually, my teammates have given me the name of the Gay Ambassador, and I embrace it. But I didn’t know any of this stuff would come to fruition. Then again, since I’m a straight guy, I didn’t know how much LGBT people were persecuted from those against it. The more people fought me on it and were against it, it was like a bodybuilder in a weight room. The bigger and stronger I got on the issue. Now, I’m freakin’ He-Man when it comes to people trying to take away LGBT rights. It really perturbs me more than it ever did before. Growing up in a biracial family and being a product of that, it kind of built me into what I am today. I could identify with a lot of things the LGBT community deals with now in discrimination.”
Q: How have attitudes changed in the Ravens locker room since you went public with your support in 2009?
Ayanbadejo: “The crazy thing about the locker room is that it’s tied to the Bible and religion. A lot of guys, they can’t see past that. Not only in teaching them about American history and the American Constitution, which allows people to practice whatever religion they want, I have to kind of give them the vision that it’s not right that this book or religion of love is persecuting other people. That’s always the first topics — the Bible and religion when it comes to LGBT rights. Some guys are OK with the religion part and are starting to accept people who are of the LGBT community. I try to tell them, ‘It’s not a sin. This is the way they’re created. It’s just the way it is, just like the color of your skin. You have no choice.’ But a lot of people really fight me on it. It’s still a discussion I have possibly every day in this locker room where guys just completely disagree and won’t see past that.
“But on the flip side, dialogue is being made. With dialogue comes understanding. And with understanding comes acceptance. We’ve made strides. Usually, the younger guys are a lot more open, so it’s really cool to talk to them about it. But a lot of the older guys are just like, ‘No. No way. Never.’ Again, it’s just like looking at racist people in the past or things that happened, like could you believe what Hitler did to the Jews? You’d never fathom that this country ever had slavery. Hopefully in 20 years, or hopefully sooner, we’ll be able to look back and won’t be able to fathom that LGBTs don’t have the same rights as everyone else.”
Q: Finally, how long do you think it will be until the first active gay NFL player emerges?
Ayanbadejo: “That’s a good question. I don’t know. I have a whole theory that some people would believe is kind of counterintuitive to a lot of stuff that I preach about LGBT rights. In no way am I trying to offend the LGBT community. But my theory after playing in the NFL for so long is that there are certain traits NFL players have and don’t have. Now, if there’s a negative thing about NFL players, we tend to be angrier (than non-players). We clearly have higher testosterone because you have to genetically to play this game. With that comes bipolar (disorder), split personality and certain negative things. That’s not everybody, but I think the rate is higher than the general population.
“I believe that there are not as many gay people in the NFL as in the regular population. This is a discussion I’ve been having on Twitter for quite some time now. Some people say, ‘You’re stupid.’ But even though there is not yet a proven gay gene, I believe people are born gay. It is a natural phenomenon.
“There are definitely gay players in the NFL. I’m not saying that there are not. Some people say the gay guys in the NFL aren’t coming out because they’re scared and worried about what’s going to happen to their careers. But I think the first person who comes out and says they are gay, everyone is going to write a book and do stories about them. They’re going to make a lot more money by saying they’re gay than by not saying they’re gay. But are we ready to hear that? Is that person going to be comfortable to do that? I don’t think they are right now because of society and the way things are.
“Eventually, I think there will be someone. But the number (of gay players) is so minute. If they say the regular population is 7 to 9 percent (LGBT), in the NFL it might be 3 percent. I could be completely wrong, but I’ve played for so long and so many others have. When you hear players coming out that are retired, they are few and far between. Why wouldn’t we hear about more players if it’s the same percentage like in the regular population?
“What I’m saying is controversial. There is no proof. It’s just my theory.”