NEW ORLEANS -- When Brendon Ayanbadejo saw how many reporters and cameras were waiting for him at the team hotel, his eyes got big. He tugged at the brim of his Baltimore Ravens hat and said, "Oh my God -- say it ain't so."
He pretended as if he might turn around and walk away, but he didn't, because he knew exactly why they were all there. They wanted to hear his reaction to the homophobic comments made Tuesday by San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, who said, among other things, that gay players "gotta get up out of here." Culliver later apologized, but Ayanbadejo feels the responsibility of being one of the few players here in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII -- maybe the only one -- willing to say the things he was about to say, willing to speak out for the gay community, as he has done for the past several years.
So the veteran linebacker kept walking, then slipped into the chair waiting for him at the small round table during the Ravens' media availability Thursday morning. Everyone turned on their recorders and faced Ayanbadejo, ignoring the two other players seated with him, young guys who were left to fiddle with their iPhones. One of the players looked surprised at the crush of people around Ayanbadejo and asked what was going on, but the other player didn't seem to want to say anything out loud; instead, he pulled up the Culliver story on his iPhone and handed it over. "Everyone has recorders on," he said. "And I'm not letting them fine me. Can't say nothing about this. Nothing."
The other player read the story and shook his head, handing the phone back. "Wow, that guy's dumb," he said. "Real dumb."
It's unclear whether he meant that Chris Culliver is dumb for thinking homophobic thoughts, or for actually speaking them in public. Either way, Culliver's statements and the swift rejection of them, first by his own team and then in his own apology, highlight how the gay rights movement is slowly gaining traction inside a league once considered too testosterone-filled to embrace something like marriage equality.
"If people hear you say those things, regardless of whether you mean them or not, they're going to fry you for it in a public arena," Ayanbadejo said. "Culliver apologized, and hopefully he'll learn. I guarantee that his comments will be a positive thing, because it sheds so much light on him and on guys who think like him. Because a lot of guys do think like him."
How many NFL players share Culliver's views when it comes to having gay teammates? Ayanbadejo estimates about half, which he sees as progress compared to when he entered the league 10 years ago. He says he doesn't know any closeted gay players and doesn't think we'll see an active NFL player come out anytime soon, because football is already hard enough and it would take a special person to add that kind of weight onto his shoulders.
So Ayanbadejo tries to do his part by making that path a little less scary. In addition to speaking out publicly, he also tries to educate his teammates on hurtful language. "I've preached since Day 1 that there are certain words you can't say," he said. "They know that when you're around me, you can't say 'gay' in a derogatory manner. You can't say the three-letter F-word. Is it a hard burden? No. It's doing what's right. I used to say those words. Then I learned those words hurt people."
After the Ravens beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, Ayanbadejo reached out to gay rights groups to ask how he could use the Super Bowl stage to help advance their cause. But after arriving in New Orleans earlier this week, he realized he needed to keep a lower profile. He wanted to focus on his teammates, on the task before them, on becoming a Super Bowl champion.
During Tuesday's media day, he answered a few questions early on about his stance on marriage equality, but when reporters approached him later, hoping to discuss his advocacy work, he told them he was done talking about it in New Orleans; he was only talking football. As Ayanbadejo puts it, the voice of a Super Bowl champion carries much farther, and he knows if he becomes one, his message might reach a new audience.
"I invite all of you to sit down with me after the game and we'll have a real discussion about this," Ayanbadejo said Thursday.
About midway through his session, he even tried to shift the discussion to the game. "OK, let's talk about football," he said. "Are you all going to scatter like roaches in the light?"
But the conversation didn't veer toward football. "Look, what I advocate for happens to be a lot more controversial than the things other people advocate for," he said. "There's a lot more media today than there was [Wednesday] or Tuesday, and that's because of this negative thing."
At the end of the session, Ayanbadejo stood and looked at the few media stragglers remaining, then shook his head. He reiterated what he had just said: He didn't intend to talk about gay rights and marriage equality this week. He wanted to wait; he was going to go all out next week.
But he couldn't be silent. Not after what Culliver said. Not when Ayanbadejo is trying to speak for so many people who don't have the kind of platform he has.
Not when there is so much more to be said.