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Same-Sex Marriage Finds New Support In NFL


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. Support for same-sex marriage has come from what seems an unlikely corner - the NFL. Two NFL players have been vocal in urging support for same-sex marriage in ballot initiatives this fall. Well, that position - from linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, of the Baltimore Ravens - drew the ire of a Maryland delegate, Emmett Burns, who urged the Ravens to silence their player.

That, in turn, outraged another player - Chris Kluwe, punter for the Minnesota Vikings. He wrote a long and profan, open letter that went viral. In it, Kluwe slammed the politician for what he called his vitriolic hatred and bigotry.

We asked the two players - Kluwe and Ayanbadejo - to talk about their support for same-sex marriage and about NFL culture.

CHRIS KLUWE: How's it going, Brendon?

BRENDON AYANBADEJO: What's up, bud? How you doing?

BLOCK: I started by asking what the reaction has been from their teammates and coaches. First, Chris Kluwe.

KLUWE: It's been very supportive. You know, they really appreciate the fact that, you know, I feel like I'm able to speak out. And they've made it clear that, you know, they support my right to free speech, and my right to be able to go out there and take a stand on an issue.

BLOCK: None of them disagree with you? None of them came up and said, I'm not quite comfortable with how public you're being about this?

KLUWE: Well, you know, there was - obviously - some concerns about it being a distraction to the team. But at the end of the day, that's going to be judged by my performance on the field. And football's a business. If you don't perform, they'll cut you. And it's one of the risks that you have to take.

BLOCK: Brendon, what kind of reaction are you hearing from your teammates and coaches?

AYANBADEJO: Well, to supersede my teammates, the president - Dick Cass - and the owner - Steve Bisciotti - they told me just to keep doing what I'm doing. Our team doesn't believe in discrimination. And then I would speak to my teammates; and some of them, you know, they didn't mind at all. And they said hey, if two people love each other and they want to be married, they should be granted the same rights as a heterosexual couple. And then other teammates, they feel that a marriage is between a man and a woman. But they feel like if a same-sex couple wants to have a civil union, then they agree with that; just 'cause, you know, they have some differences, when it comes to religion and whatnot. But they didn't want the law to dictate that. So I've had some encouraging conversations with my teammates, and with people in the building.

I'm so glad it's come to light and so many people are supporting it - because you go back 24 months, 12 months, and it was a completely different feel; and people weren't so supportive. And I'd hear some snickering and some comments. And so I'm glad that in our football community, we're changing. A sport that's known as a macho sport; known for, you know, for making gay slurs and whatnot; I'm glad to see a changing of the guard, and people starting to broaden their horizons and accept equality, really.

BLOCK: Chris, what about with the Vikings?

KLUWE: Yeah, I've seen the same thing. When I came in the league in 2005, you know, a lot of guys on the team that were veterans, were guys that were raised kind of more in the '90s - mid-'90s, late '80s. And you could tell, their attitudes were a little more that kind of time frame. Whereas now, guys are happy to let people live their own lives; to let people - to be free, you know; free from oppression.

BLOCK: Chris, you mentioned something earlier, which is that there is - there was concern that this would be a distraction from the team. There is an expectation, in professional sports, to not make headlines; to keep away from politics. You know, your focus should be on the game and anything else, really, is a distraction for you and the team, which has a whole lot of money invested. What do you think about that? And does that affect you, in any way?

KLUWE: Well, I think it's part of the nature of the business. The NFL is a business, first and foremost. They're in it to make money. And as players, our jobs are to go out on the field, and play to the best of our ability. Now, that being said, we also have a very unique social platform in that we can reach a lot of people that normally, you know, this message might not reach. And I think if, you know, you're willing to take the risk that OK, if you think you can deal with the distractions while maintaining the level of your play, then - you know - for me personally, it's worth it.

BLOCK: Brendon, what about that question of whether, you know, becoming outspoken on a social issue - and a divisive social issue, for many people - could be a distraction for the team or you, as a player?

AYANBADEJO: Yeah, well, I don't think it's a distraction. And I don't know how the team views it. I know that the team allows us to do many different types of philanthropical things and help the community. And players do it in many different ways; whether they're going to schools and talking at schools, or they're feeding people, or doing different things to help society. I believe this is no different than that.

BLOCK: It's interesting 'cause we're talking about - what you're describing is a cultural shift within the NFL. But there are no openly gay, active NFL players. There are players who've come out as gay, after they've retired. What do you think it would take for a gay player in the NFL, to come out?

KLUWE: I think it just takes - it would just need to take more of us speaking out about the issue and showing that, you know, it's OK to come out. It's OK to be who you are because in the locker room, you know, we'll have your back.

BLOCK: Brendon, what do you think?

AYANBADEJO: Yeah. I mean, I believe it's going to take the right city, the right organization, and the right timing. That's why we're so adamant about this, in speaking out, so we can help whoever the next young person is that comes out; so they can not only, you know, excel in what they're doing at work, but also excel as an individual. And in turn, they're going to make us a better place to live - and enhance everything.

BLOCK: Do you think, realistically, that we're at a point where teammates, coaches, fans would accept a gay NFL player?

AYANBADEJO: I think so. I spoke to Dick Cass, the president from the Ravens, about this issue; and you know, right now, what do we expect of our players? We expect you to be a good person; we expect you to be a good player; we expect you to get your job done. If you can get your job done and you're also a great player, the type of person that is wanted in the organization, then you're only going to enhance the organization. It doesn't matter what your sexual orientation is.

BLOCK: I don't know, Chris. I've been reading some responses to your blog posts. And there is a lot of anger and disagreement out there...

KLUWE: (LAUGHTER) Well, those people are certainly...

BLOCK: put it mildly.

KLUWE: They're certainly not coming on Twitter to say it because out of - I'd say I probably got like, 5- or 6,000 replies to the letter I wrote. And I counted maybe seven angry responses. And I think it's one of those things where people, they're going to say stuff on the Internet that they're not necessarily going to say in real life. And it will be tough, at first, for a guy to come out - you know, just like it was tough for Jackie Robinson to be the first black player in baseball. I mean, it was tough for Kenny Washington to be one of the first black football players. And it's unfortunate that people feel that way but if we make a stand, if we make our voices heard then, you know, we make it that much easier for whoever who decided to take that next step.

BLOCK: Chris, you're 30 - I believe. Right?

KLUWE: Yes, that's correct.

BLOCK: And Brendon, you're 36?

AYANBADEJO: Yeah. Chris is still wet behind the ears.


KLUWE: Yeah. You're ancient, for football.

AYANBADEJO: Oh, my goodness, I have so many gray hairs.


BLOCK: Well, I'm asking because I was wondering whether as older players in the league, you have some standing; you may be more comfortable to take the positions you've taken, than a really young player might.

KLUWE: Yeah. I think, you know, being players that have had success, in multiple years in the league, does make it a bit easier because, you know, we've had some of those years where we've got money saved up. But at the same time, I'd like to think of us as kind of the veteran guys; that when young guys come in, you know, they look at us and they're like, OK - you know; that's OK. These guys are talking about it. These guys are supporting it, you know. We're OK with it - and just make the league a better place than when we came in.

BLOCK: Brendon?

AYANBADEJO: Yeah. I mean, we're just - we're trying to change the whole attitude that's in the locker room, and I think we've done it. One of the biggest, you know, compliments that I get - I kind of don't like it, but it's also a compliment - is, oh, you all wouldn't expect a football player to be talking about marriage equality.

But why not? We're no different than anybody else. We laugh, we cry; we have emotions. Just because we play football - it doesn't mean that we're these - you know - quote-unquote "macho" guys, or whatever. I mean, we want everyone to be treated equally within our organizations and within our sport, and we're trying to get that done. And I think Chris has done a great job of just showing exactly what type of people we are. We're more than just football players.

BLOCK: Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, thank you so much for talking with us.

AYANBADEJO: Thanks for having us.

KLUWE: Yeah, thank you for having us.

BLOCK: That's Chris Kluwe,of the Minnesota Vikings; and Brendon Ayanbadejo, of the Baltimore Ravens.


CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.