Super Bowl XLVII is being billed as the Harbaugh Bowl: the battle between Jim and John Harbaugh, head coaches, respectively, of the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens. It also pits two NFL teams connected directly and indirectly to the struggles for LGBT rights. Read that last sentence again, and appreciate for a moment how far fighters for LGBT equality have traveled.
In August, the 49ers became the first NFL franchise to film an “It Gets Better” video to combat anti-LGBT bullying in schools. The team was compelled to produce the public service announcement when a diehard Bay Area fan named Sean Chapin initiated a Change.org petition asking the 49ers to break the NFL’s conspicuous silence. He received 16,000 online signatures and the team responded. Several players were featured with the most stirring comments coming from hard-hitting safety Donte Whitner who said, “The San Francisco 49ers are proud to joinItGetsBetter.org, to let all LGBT teens know that it gets better. On behalf of the entire 49ers organization, we are on your side, and we promise it gets better.”
As for the Ravens, they are the team of linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who is part of a new wave of outspoken athletes for LGBT rights. Ayanbadejo aided the successful referendum for marriage equality in the state of Maryland in November while braving disagreements from teammates, criticism on sports radio and even a Maryland state delegate requesting that team chief executive Steve Biscotti “take the necessary action, as a National Football League owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees.” But the Ravens took no such action and Ayanbadejo hasn’t stopped expressing himself, and won’t stop this coming week.
After Baltimore beat the New England Patriots to go to the Super Bowl, the Ravens linebacker typed out what he is calling his “Jerry Maguire e-mail” at 3:40 am. He wrote to the founder of New Yorkers for Marriage Equality, Brian Ellner, and the political director for media mogul Russell Simmons, Michael Skolnik. Ayanbadejo’s message was that the Super Bowl, the shiniest, most watched event in all of North American sports, could be a remarkable podium to make the case against homophobia. He wrote, “Is there anything I can do for marriage equality or anti-bullying over the next couple of weeks to harness this Super Bowl media?”
After the e-mail went public, Ayanbadejo spoke to Frank Bruni of The New York Times about why he reached out in the wee hours of the morning. “It’s one of those times when you’re really passionate and in your zone,” he said. “And I got to thinking about all kinds of things, and I thought: how can we get our message out there?”
Ellner, who saw the impact athletes like Steve Nash and Michael Strachan had in the New York fight for marriage equality said, “He understands that as a straight biracial player in the Super Bowl, he can have a huge impact on the future of this issue.”
Ayanbadejo also told Bruni that he’s been in contact with Hudson Taylor, who founded the organization Athlete Ally to challenge anti-gay bigotry on all levels in professional sports. “He’s so excited and ready to take a stand in whatever way he can,” said Taylor. “He is leveraging the biggest sports stage in the world.”
This isn’t the first time a Super Bowl player has tried to leverage “the biggest sportsl stage” to raise awareness about LGBT rights. Linebacker Scott Fujita, then of the New Orleans Saints had similar goals in 2010, but what a different three years makes. I spoke to Fujita about Ayanbadejo and he said, “I’ll never forget three years ago, I was at the Super Bowl playing for the Saints. I’d endorsed the National Equality March [the previous fall] and at that same Super Bowl, Tim Tebow was doing his ad for Focus on the Family [an organization that promotes “gay reparative therapy&dquo;]. I remember my support for marriage equality made a little bit of noise, because there just weren’t many guys in our business talking about this sort of thing. I received a few media inquiries, and on Super Bowl media day I walked up and down radio row prepared to speak out on this and only a few folks really knew how to talk to me about it. The rest would only ask me what I thought about Tim’s ad but little else. Fast forward three years and I feel like we’re in a different world. People are asking all the right questions and I’m so glad Brendon is going to be there with some answers. It’s just a new world.”
Ayanbadejo has to know that using the Super Bowl to do something other than play the game and smile for the cameras carries a great deal of risk. He seems to be not only rising to the risk but taking great joy in the journey. The linebacker says that his dream is to win the Super Bowl and then dance with Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show. Once again, read that last sentence again. In just three years, as Scott Fujita said, it’s just a new world. Whether the NFL, CBS or anyone else likes it or not, this new world is now jostling to be heard in the land of make-believe that is Super Bowl week. Even in the NFL, clearly, it gets better.