September 14, 2012
Standing Up at an Early Age
By ADAM HIMMELSBACH
In recent weeks, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has been praised in many quarters for supporting the legalization of same-sex marriage. His stance is not new, but it reached a wider audience after a Maryland legislator urged the Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to silence him.
Supporters of gay marriage rallied around Ayanbadejo; the Ravens and others in pro football backed him; and Ellen DeGeneres exchanged glowing messages with him on Twitter.
For Ayanbadejo, 36, it was a comforting shift from 2009, when he became one of the first athletes from a major American professional sports team to speak out in support of same-sex marriage. That year, he found gay slurs directed at him on Internet message boards. In the Ravens’ locker room, players made crude remarks and asked him when he would reveal his homosexuality, he said.
“If I was walking by, and they wanted to be immature and make comments, I’d keep walking,” said Ayanbadejo, who has a 1-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter with his longtime girlfriend. “If they wanted to be real men and have conversations, I would have, but no one did.”
If those players had heard Ayanbadejo’s story, they would have learned how his views were shaped. His father is Nigerian, and his mother is Irish-American, and he was given the first name Oladele, which translates to “wealth follows me home.” But for much of his childhood, that did not ring true.
Ayanbadejo’s parents separated when he was 3, and his mother, Rita, took him and his older brother Obafemi from Nigeria to a two-bedroom apartment in a drug-infested housing project in Chicago.
Ayanbadejo looked forward to the first day of each month, when Rita would come home with milk, cheese and cereal she had purchased with food stamps. They ate Thanksgiving dinners at the Boys & Girls Club, and their Christmas gifts came from local charities.
“The good part about living there was you were around every kind of person you could imagine,” Ayanbadejo said. “Differences didn’t matter, because we all had struggles.”
When Ayanbadejo was 10, his family moved to Santa Cruz, Calif., where they lived in the campus apartment of a family friend who attended the University of California-Santa Cruz.
Ayanbadejo began going by his middle name, Brendon, to fit in. He starred for Santa Cruz High School’s football team, but he was also active in theater, rode a skateboard and befriended many openly gay students. He had been accepted as a biracial boy from a Chicago housing project, so he accepted everyone else’s differences, too, he said.
“He just had a new lease on life there,” said Ayanbadejo’s sister, Rosalinda Sanford.
Ayanbadejo became a standout linebacker at U.C.L.A. and was involved in social causes. When some Los Angeles-area schools cut their arts budgets, Ayanbadejo and some friends began teaching theater at elementary schools three days a week.
In 1998, after California Proposition 209, which barred the state from discriminating on the basis of race, sex or ethnicity, went into effect, Ayanbadejo worked to publicize the diminished number of minority students at U.C.L.A.
“They were basically saying, ‘If you’re an athlete at U.C.L.A., it’s O.K. to be black,’ ” Ayanbadejo said. “It’s a state school, and I felt like it had an obligation to represent its demographics.”
In 2007, Ayanbadejo and the former Bruins point guard Baron Davis formed an organization focused on diversity in higher education.
“At U.C.L.A., everyone knew Brendon was different,” said his longtime friend Michael Skolnik, the political director for the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. “Everyone knew the football field was not his ultimate destination.”
Even though Ayanbadejo was a first-team all-Pacific-10 Conference selection as a senior, he was not selected in the 1999 draft. He bounced from N.F.L. training camps to the Canadian Football League to N.F.L. Europe before signing with the Miami Dolphins in 2003. He eventually became one of the N.F.L.’s top special teams players with the Chicago Bears and the Ravens, and he was selected to three Pro Bowls.
During the 2008 presidential race, Ayanbadejo said, he grew frustrated that Barack Obama did not openly support same-sex marriage. So in April 2009 he wrote a blog post published by The Huffington Post with the headline “Same Sex Marriages: What’s the Big Deal?”
“When it comes to identifying professional athletes who can help, it’s not easy,” said Brian Ellner, a supporter of same-sex marriage who has worked with Ayanbadejo on a referendum in Maryland to uphold the state’s same-sex marriage law. “And Brendon originally did it without being contacted by anyone.”
Gay rights groups reached out to Ayanbadejo. He filmed public-service announcements, took part in photo shoots and donated Ravens tickets to fund-raisers.
“It’s an extraordinarily tough issue for an African-American pro athlete to take on publicly, and he’s done it with such grace,” Skolnik said.
Ayanbadejo does not trumpet his views in the locker room. He speaks out only when he hears a teammate utter a gay slur. But he is not afraid to share his thoughts.
“In an environment like an N.F.L. locker room, I think it’s extremely commendable to have the courage to stand up for something like this,” said Domonique Foxworth, who is president of the N.F.L. Players Association and who was Ayanbadejo’s teammate on the Ravens. “A lot of guys know these views are out there, and they may not be as strong as Brendon and may not be able to accept the ridicule they may receive.”
Since Ayanbadejo first spoke out in 2009, it has become more common for professional athletes to support gay rights. The N.B.A. All-Star Steve Nash, the former Pro Bowler Michael Strahan and the hockey player Sean Avery are among those who have publicly supported same-sex marriage.
When the critical letter from the Maryland delegate, Emmett C. Burns Jr., became public in late August, Ayanbadejo said, he felt widespread support in the world of football for the first time. Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe wrote a scathing response to Burns, the Ravens publicly sided with Ayanbadejo, and there were no jokes in the Baltimore locker room, he said.
“A bunch of my teammates were men about it, and they had real, honest conversations with me,” Ayanbadejo said. “That had never happened before.”
© 2011 The New York Times Company
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs