On April 29, 2013, 12-year NBA veteran Jason Collins came out as the first openly gay active male athlete playing one of the four major American sports. Recently, the HPR sat down with former Ravens linebacker and three-time Pro Bowl selection Brendon Ayanbadejo to discuss his LGBTQ advocacy work, future ambitions for elected office, and athlete activism.
Harvard Political Review: We’re sitting here right now because you decided to do something fairly unusual for an athlete: get involved in a political cause. How did you decide to become involved in this issue?
Brendon Ayanbadejo: I grew up in Santa Cruz, California. It’s a little beach town, and it’s really a liberal type of place. So growing up, we didn’t really have much inhibitions and were always taught to express what you believe. It really fostered a holistic approach to love and life.
In 2008, the issue of same sex marriage was really relevant and President Obama was running against [Sen. John] McCain. McCain took a stance against it. As a supporter of President Obama, I was a little bit turned off that he was straddling the fence and not saying one thing or the other. So I wrote a letter to the Huffington Post that was published in 2009. I like going back to it because I was the first professional athlete to ever speak on marriage equality. Really in a way I was inspired by Obama. [The letter was] somewhat of an open letter to Obama, like if we were just having an impromptu conversation. That was my inspiration—like ‘you’re going to be the first black President and what do you believe in?’
Subsequently four years later he came out for it. I think he would have helped our plight to expedite equality if he had done it four years ago.
HPR: What was the reaction you got from teammates when you published the letter?
BA: Can I say? Oh, man. No one said anything directly to me. I just heard things on the periphery. But all you had to do was go to profootballtalk.com or any of these websites.
Look at what the people were saying and then fast forward to 2012 when Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote his letter that went viral and worldwide. Read my reply and what people said on sports websites. That will tell you how far we’ve come in four years. We’ve come lightyears in the things that people say and the way that they react in social media, You see that same dichotomy in the locker room, as well.
HPR: There’s been a lot of talk about the idea of locker room culture having fed homophobia. Have you seen a shift of that in your own experience?
BA: The thing that’s so fascinating about the locker room is that governance doesn’t apply there. It’s kind of like being in your house. You want the locker room to feel like you’re in your home where you can say what you want to say and express yourself, however which way you want to do that.
With that being said there’s a lot of slurs going on. But as far as it being homophobic, it’s not homophobic. As far as being LGBTQ friendly, it could be friendlier. So the language that you hear in there needs to change, but I don’t think the things that the guys would and wouldn’t do are on the end of being homophobic. [The things] are more on the end of being ignorant and not LGBTQ friendly.
We need to change the language. You want guys to be comfortable to express themselves. So that means you also have to be accepting of a teammate if they’re gay because this is our sanctuary, our home. Everybody needs to be free to be who they are.
HPR: The NHL recently came out with an initiative to fight homophobia and is billing itself as the most inclusive sports league in America. Are you optimistic that the NFL will eventually get there?
BA: Being that nobody watches hockey, that’s not really making much of a splash (chuckles). The best thing about it is that they’re leading the way for the MLB, NBA, and NFL to do the same thing. That’s really what we want them to do, and it’s really what we expect them to do.
The NFL is a major organization. And they haven’t done it. When you look at Google, or Apple, or you look at Whirlpool, or just so many Fortune 500 companies, they’ve taken the stance for it. But when you look at the NFL, it hasn’t done anything. So I’m waiting for the NFL to do that. I’m waiting for all of sports to take the splash that the NHL did.
HPR: How optimistic are you that the NFL will follow in five years?
BA: Way before that. In five years, this won’t be an issue. The NFL is going to take some steps in the next few months to align with the LGBTQ community.
HPR: How do you think speaking out on this issue has impacted your career?
BA: I don’t think it’s hurt me at all. I’ve been playing football professionally since 1999. Every assignment has a beginning and an ending, and it might be my time for football to be over. But the doors that have opened up for me by being an ally to the LGBTQ community are endless.
Who wants to be stuck being a football player when the average career is only three years? And just because I did the right thing and supported equality, now I’m here at Harvard and speaking at Johnson and Johnson and Proctor and Gamble. I don’t think it’s hurt me in football, but it’s definitely propelled me professionally in other arenas.
HPR: Do you think there’s a responsibility for athletes to speak out on issues they care about like this one?
BA: It depends who you ask. I love Michael Jordan to death but he’s never been a political guy. I love Muhammad Ali, also. I’d rather be a Muhammad Ali, a Jim Brown, a Kareem Abdul Jabbar, or a Jackie Robinson. I went to UCLA, so did the latter two athletes. I‘ve always felt that athletes have a fiduciary responsibility to society. It takes a village to raise a child. If you’re just there talking about sports and only sports, that’s not enough guidance. You need to explain why sports are important. I believe every athlete has that responsibility, but I definitely believe in it more than other athletes believe in it.
HPR: You mention the idea of a post-football career. Are you interested in a career as a full-time activist?
BA: I don’t consider myself an activist. I consider myself a concerned citizen. I’m also a patriot, and I’m going to uphold the Constitution of the United States and, when it’s underachieving, I’m going to expect it to perform to the ideals that the founding fathers had. I’m just a citizen concerned about the evolution of us as Americans and our influence on the world. I don’t consider myself an activist or a politician.
HPR: What about an advocate? Do you want to do this full time?
BA: In some capacity I want to influence change. I want to be an athletic director and have young people that are really malleable, goal driven, and somewhat successful and see how much I can help them. Is that kind of like being a politician just helping a smaller group of people? I think that with the path that I’m on now, I can develop both and could splinter off at any given time. So I’m going to continue on this path and develop my dreams of being an athletic director and keep my citizenship and patriotism. If it leads into politics, so be it. I’ll be a back door type of politician that does things a little bit differently.
HPR: Elected office someday?
BA: My mom’s so big into politics. As I get older, I’m becoming more like my mother. She would be so proud. She already has two kids who have won Super Bowls. Why not have a son that’s a governor one day?
HPR: That sounds like a yes
BA: Yeah, sure…
This interview has been edited and condensed. The HPR thanks the JFK Jr. Forum Committee for help in arranging this interview.