Tenaciously supporting a minority that so many in the majority have yet to understand takes considerable strength and courage, perhaps in its own way, requiring even more bravery than donning pads and a helmet on Sundays.
Speaking out in favor of marriage equality has put NFL players Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Scott Fujita (all heterosexual, in case you were wondering) on a new kind of athletic map, one that spans far beyond the football field. The three veterans of the sport, all California natives, will have their eyes on Washington D.C. Tuesday and Wednesday as the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in two cases that could change the course of history for gay people in this country.
With the help of attorney John Dragseth and university law professor Tim Holbrook, the three NFL players filed an Amicus Brief with the court - a document stating one’s position as it relates to a case before the court - in support of marriage equality.
"Basically it’s a way to bring attention to an aspect of the case we think is important to the Court that they might not have otherwise considered," said Kluwe who used the athlete perspective as the primary focus of the brief.
"Many different entities file amicus briefs in high profile cases, and if they’re cogent and well reasoned, the Court generally takes them into consideration."
Several athletes (current and former) have signed the brief, hoping to use their names to help push what they see as positive legislation forward.
"The brief shows that historically, many athletes have been powerful agents for social change," said Fujita, who recently wrote an essay about his views on marriage equality for the New York Times.
"People look to us, whether we like it or not. And that’s why our actions, and how we treat others, and the words we use, carry a lot of weight. We need to set the right example, especially for kids."
In an age where world famous sports stars (i.e. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, etc.) keep quiet about their personal and political beliefs, many find the recent surge of athletes coming out in support of the LGBT community and marriage equality to be something new, and surprising.
"Renaissance" would be a more accurate description of the gay rights movement building within the community of current and former professional athletes as the sports world has often been at the forefront of civil rights issues.
Jackie Robinson integrated baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, several years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education integrated the country in 1954.
Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman stood for racial equality on the medal stand in Mexico City during the 1968 Summer Olympics.
Women gained equal access to play sports in school with the Title IX portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 and here we are, four decades later, where women earn only 74 cents for every dollar earned by men in the workplace.
The NFL’s renaissance men embrace the challenges faced by their predecessors as they become the next generation of athletes to take a stand on social issues.
"Until everyone is accepted and treated equally we will continue to push the envelope toward equality," said Ayanbadejo, who plans to speak at a marriage equality rally in Washington on Tuesday.
"People know and accept that racism isn’t right. When every one feels the same way about discrimination and the law backs our stance, only then will we be satisfied."
While Ayanbadejo, Fujita and Kluwe have long been supporters of the LBGT community and marriage equality, their stock soared sky high in 2012, and even ruffled some feathers along the way, thanks to an election year with marriage equality on the ballot in several states.
The broad discussion of constitutional gay rights narrowly trickled down to the sports world Monday as news broke regarding an NFL player who is strongly considering coming out to the public. He would become the first openly gay, active athlete in the history of North American team sports.
It’s clear that a host of fellow athletes would support him, as there are plenty of notable names on the athlete’s brief submitted to the court. But the list is noticeably devoid of the most recognizable sports figures. No LeBron James, Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant, or Sidney Crosby. No Venus or Serena Williams, Rory McIlroy or Derek Jeter.
"It would really help bolster the environment of support and equality we’re trying to promote in the NFL and other pro sports," Kluwe said of the importance of the biggest names in the business publicly supporting LGBT rights and marriage equality.
"Top athletes are definitely role models for a lot of people, and having their help is invaluable."
In fairness to the aforementioned, they weren’t necessarily asked to participate. Ayanbadejo did the majority of the recruiting himself on a busy, Super Bowl-winning schedule.
"The first filtering of candidates was done in my head. I targeted my athletes and went for it," said Ayanbadejo when asked how many "A-list" athletes were asked to join the cause.
Fujita made a few calls as well, witnessing first hand how money and corporate sponsorship can so easily create a serious conflict of interest for celebrities.
"There were a handful that I approached. And it wasn’t that they weren’t with us on issue. Sometimes ‘corporate interests’ weigh in, I think. That’s why I occasionally (half-jokingly) challenge these guys to be the ‘anti-Jordan.’"
Despite those who declined to participate (publicly or privately), Ayanbadejo was encouraged by the progress made by those who were willing to lend their support.
"There really wasn’t any flat out no’s but there was plenty of hesitation. And just as many guys that were hesitant stepped up and affirmative said yes. For me to be fair I would have had to have asked more guys but the overwhelming majority said yes. I would say I was batting around .650."
That average lines up nicely against the country as a whole, as nearly 60 percent of Americans said they support gay marriage.
The NFL’s renaissance men are hoping that one more majority sides with them as well come June, when the Supreme Court makes its decision on marriage equality.
Hey man, how’s it going? I would like to sugar coat the meaty contents of this letter by first saying congratulations on making it to the Super Bowl, as you and your 49ers teammates have made the city of San Francisco beam with football pride for the first time in many years. That is wonderful.
More importantly, I have a personal favor I’d like to ask of you. Please don’t apologize for your homophobic comments, attempt to rephrase or claim your words were taken out of context.
I’m not sure even the best and brightest of the PR world could find a way to spin this (courtesy of the Mercury News):
“I don’t do the gay guys man,” Culliver said. “I don’t do that. No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.
“Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah … can’t be … in the locker room man. Nah.”
Culliver suggested that homosexual athletes keep their sexuality private until 10 years after they retire.
Apparently, Artie Lange is the new Oprah, getting guys like you to open up about such controversial subjects. Impressive!
Here’s the thing Chris. Personally, I respect your right to freely discuss your opinions, any time, any place. I’m sure the majority of San Franciscans agree, given the Bay Area’s storied history of the peace movement, freedom of speech and gay rights activism.
This is why I implore you not to attempt to color these comments as something other than what they are; the dark truth that homophobia and strong anti-gay views remain deeply rooted in the world of professional sports.
Sure, there are other guys sprinkled throughout pro sports, for instance, your fellow NFL pals Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe and Scott Fujita, who are openly supportive of civil rights in this country, including LGBT rights. But clearly the movement is not yet powerful enough to have impacted you, despite your own team’s efforts to join the cause.
While it was a poor business move to publicly reveal your feelings about gays as a member of a San Francisco-based organization, there is no going back so you may as well resign to moving forward.
Should you apologize for hurting people’s feelings or offending them? That seems fair. You can stick by something you say while feeling bad that others are hurt by it. In a weird and twisted way, I actually respect Lance Armstrong for a non-apology he gave Oprah in their sit-down interview.
Instead of taking the apology bait when Oprah asked him if he felt remorse, Armstrong’s response was, “everybody that gets caught is bummed out they got caught.” Finally, he was honest about something.
Chris, you are strong enough to take the Lance route on this one.
Don’t be like your Super Bowl opponent Terrell Suggs who, after verbally decimating the "arrogant prick" Patriots, received a talking-to from teammate Ray Lewis, and consequently changed his tune to, “people don’t like them because they win,” in hopes of avoiding backlash. That’s weak sauce. Super weak.
Stick to your beliefs. Only if you mean it, say you’re sorry for offending anyone and then keep your mouth shut regarding this issue for the rest of the week.
And don’t worry about being excluded or treated as a leper back home in San Francisco after the Super Bowl. Most of the folks in the Bay are much more accepting than you, so you need not worry. It’s all good. In fact, I bet you’ll be even more popular upon your return, as the locals will surely stop you on the street for a quick chat from time to time, in hopes that maybe, just maybe their open-mindedness might rub off on you.
UPDATE: Well, looks like Chris didn’t read my letter. Bummer.
49ers statement, on behalf of Chris Culliver:
"The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel. It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience.”