I bloody love football. Moving me from rave to rage with one misplaced pass in the dying seconds of a game it can make or break my weekend. No other sport does this to me. But football continues to disappoint, not only on the field, but off it too. Where are the LGBT frontiers? Nowhere to be seen.
Let’s pan across to the US, the land of jocks, geeks and cheerleaders. Stereotype upon stereotype pours out of American culture and onto our TV screens here in old Blighty. I know they might not but I like to think that these people exist in real life America, if only to validate my love for high school film Bring It On. And if we go on the Hollywood portrayal (and we sort of need to for the sake of this article) then one thing is for certain and that is that guys are buff, hyper-masculine men, interested only in making the pro-leagues, buying a couple of flashy cars and getting all the girls.
Welcome then to real life NFL (National Football League) and NBA (National Basketball Association) – places that can make these dreams come true. Recently both leagues have produced some by Hollywood standards unlikely figures; men not in it for the girls but leading the way for gay rights.
Brendon Ayanbadejo is an NFL linebacker, which means he’s one of those big tough blokes on the defensive side of the team*. In February of this year, Ayanbadejo was part of the Baltimore Ravens team that secured one of the biggest prizes in world sport; The Superbowl, watched by over 100 million people worldwide.
But Ayanbadejo isn’t just a world class athlete. He is also an active supporter of marriage equality meaning he has become an unlikely figure of the fight for same-sex marriage equality in the USA.
Married to a woman with two daughters, the linebacker could quite easily have shrunk into the background and used his talent for nothing more than to earn a fairly tasty living. And who could judge him for doing so? But this Chicago-born athlete, now nearing the end of his professional career, has thankfully decided to use his influence for a greater good.
Ayanbadejo’s outspoken support of gay rights has caused more than a little stir in a world of testosterone-filled locker rooms, painted with the colours of masculinity and heterosexuality. The fact that a straight player has come to the fore to speak out has not been well received by many within the sport, and indeed the country has a whole.
In September last year Maryland State Delegate Emmett C.Burns Jnr wrote a letter to the Baltimore Ravens stating that the club must take “necessary action to inhibit such expressions from [your] employee”. The Ravens declined to respond to the letter – no more than it deserved of course. But this outrageous attempt to inhibit free speech did not go unnoticed.
Step forward Chris Kluwe, a punter for the NFL Minnesota Vikings, another heterosexual player who had now decided that enough was enough. Kluwe fired an open letter back to Burns, a letter that started with the following refined opening line: “your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level”.
It continued with phrases such as (and please do pardon the French) “holy fucking shitballs” as well as an eloquent assurance to Emmet saying that allowing gay people to marry would not turn Emmet into a “lustful cockmonster”.
A glorious work of literature in other words (read it here).
The unlikely duo of Ayanbadejo and Kluwe has since appeared on The Ellen Show, they have both given speeches at numerous activist rallies and fundraisers and fronted the NOH8 campaign.
When I stumbled upon the work of Bryan Ayanbadejo, and later that of Kluwe, I did not only get excited but suddenly felt a sense of pride that some damn fine athletes were shouting out loud and proud. I was suddenly aware that whilst there are still few homosexual sporting icons (Gareth Thomas and Hope Powell aside) to inspire those struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, here was a pair of heterosexual athletes who were willing to take a chance on their own careers in order to get the ball rolling. Promising stuff.
And then, of course, it only went and got better. Jason Collins, an NBA professional for the Washington Wizards, took the revered step of coming out as gay in the April issue of Sports Illustrated.
Collins will go down history as the first-ever professional male athlete to come out and, thankfully, his brave announcement was widely celebrated, gaining support from the likes of Barack Obama, sports brand Nike and NBA legend Kobe Bryant.
As for football, the shadow of homophobic dinosaurs still looms, large and imposing, and with people like Sepp Blatter running the show, it looks to remain that way for some time. I can only hope that a duo equivalent to that of Ayanbadejo and Kluwe, or a player as ballsy as Jason Collins, will soon feel strong enough step up to the mark and at least make a dent in the rigid discrimination that continues to surround our beautiful game. Thanks to these inspiring jocks, I’m starting to think that it just might be a possibility.
*This knowledge is based on my limited knowledge of the sport, gained solely from hours of playing Madden 2003 on PlayStation with my brother.
Text: Alice Weekes, Climax Online Sports Editor
Image: Sports Illustrated