The exercise of celebrity free speech is one of diversity's most powerful weapons. The case of NFL Baltimore Ravens player Brendon Ayanbadejo, a celebrity only by virtue of being a professional football player, has amplified this point. Ayanbadejo made it clear via YouTube postings and other measures that he is a supporter of same-sex marriage, including support for a November Maryland state ballot initiative. In this instance the opinion of non-superstar celebrity Brendon Ayanbadejo has been powerful stuff.
I am as consistent as anyone in calling for athletes to speak out more. When Kellen Winslow Sr. devoted the bulk of his Hall of Fame speech to affirmative action, people asked why? Participants in the 1968 Olympics black power salute, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, had a response that was similar to his: Because I knew this would be the one time people would hear my voice. The celebrity stage is fleeting and often we don't take the opportunity to have our say while we have the floor. We need to understand as well that there are times when we should not speak. It is ok for an athlete not to have an opinion. Human rights in Tibet may not have been at the forefront of many of the athletes going to Beijing, for example, but by the time Winslow spoke he was a well-studied holder of a law degree. In 1968, the athletes were on top of the race issues dominating in the U.S. It is also conceivable that someone old enough to play in the NFL has an opinion on same-sex marriage.
Emmett C. Burns, Jr. is a Maryland State delegate and minister who opposes same-sex marriage. Burns sent a letter to Steve Bisciotti, the Ravens' owner, suggesting that he "inhibit such expressions from [his] employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions." The power play of going to one's employer is just wrong. Here the bullying tactic was tried on the wrong kid in the school yard. This kid had buddies waiting to jump in on the fight.
In reaction to Representative Burns Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, wrote a profanity filled letter that he submitted to various internet news sites. What the punter articulated, in the flowery language of a football player, is that the first amendment applies to athletes too. Although they may not choose to use that right often enough it is refreshing when they do. Burns backed away from his initial position stating, "Upon reflection, he has his First Amendment rights, 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."
The end result has been surprise and praise for a kinder, gentler NFL than many had perceived exists. But that should not be the case. If you've spent time in the locker room you know two things. Yes, often there are gay slurs used on the field and locker room but if the guy at the locker next to you can play, his sexual preference is irrelevant. Like most of us too, these players often have family, friends and even teammates who are gay and may have shared with them their desires for a legalized form of life partner relationship.
In a course I teach on sports and social impact I had students do work for Freedomsounds, a not for profit focused on LGBT rights. The student assignment was to help develop campaigns for a greater understanding of LGBT issues. One of the key conclusions the student reached was that there is little more powerful than straight allies joining forces for greater inclusion and fair treatment. There is nothing more powerful than speaking up for your beliefs when you have nothing of substance to gain and at the hand of others, the possibility of losing much more.
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.