Can the NFL accept gay players?

The setup is deceptively simple, as linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo sits in a cavernous room, wearing his purple Baltimore Ravens jersey. With a golden spotlight on his face, he delivers a few short but powerful lines, captured by a single close-up camera.

"Gay and lesbian couples want to marry for similar reasons as we all do: love and commitment," Ayanbadejo said. "It's time to allow them the opportunity to build a family though marriage. It's a matter of fairness."

With that video to support a marriage equity proposition in Maryland, Ayanbadejo touched the third rail in a sport that markets masculinity -- the National Football League. Sports message boards erupted with questions about Ayanbadejo's sexuality, and lashed insults at the linebacker.

"It's not anything I'm afraid of," Ayanbadejo said. "If I have to put a cause on my back, I'm happy to do that."

Merely supporting homosexuals who want the right to get married is a bold act from the perch of the NFL, so imagine the response if a player announced he were gay. There have been men and women athletes who have come out, such as Sheryl Swoopes and Greg Louganis, but not a male player in one of the professional American sports leagues such as Major League Baseball, The National Football League or the National Basketball Association.

Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who also has publicly supported gay rights, hopes players will feel comfortable enough to come out.

"I think a gay player can be accepted, and some day he will be," Fujita said. "It's just a matter of someone with the courage to come out, and that's what's going to be a challenge."

In a 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll, Americans were found to have much more conservative attitudes about homosexuality than those polled in most western countries. At that time, just 49 percent of Americans said it should be accepted, compared with percentages in the 70-80 range among many Europeans and Canadians. But attitudes have changed dramatically in recent years, and by late 2009, the Pew Research Center found 57 percent of Americans were in favor of civil unions for same-sex couples. There is a similar opinion change about gays serving in the military.

None of the stereotypes about gay people suggest they would be good at sports.
John Amaechi, a former NBA player who came out after he retired

While attitudes are changing, that change has not been felt in the locker room in American professional sports, including in the NFL. Fujita said that more NFL players might be as accepting as he and Ayanbadejo, but reporters who cover sports rarely venture beyond asking questions about the game.

"I honestly think more guys are like-minded, but no one asks these questions," Fujita said.

NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello said that the matter of a gay player, and how he would be treated in the NFL, would be a personal issue.

"Any workplace conduct matter would be addressed under our personal conduct policy," Aiello said.

Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), wants leagues to be proactive when it comes to matters of sexual preference.

"All sports leagues have a responsibility to create a safe environment for fans, employees and players," Barrios said in a statement. "From the New York Yankees to the Los Angeles Lakers, more teams than ever are taking steps to ensure that homophobia stays out of the game and the stands. The NFL should take note of Brendon Ayanbadejo's inclusive message and follow his lead in speaking out in support of equality for all."

Athletes point to an environment where players, from the superstar to the last man on a roster, can get called out over anything from their earrings to their decision to slip out after practice without taking a shower, much less over something like sexual preference.

"It would be tough for a gay person just to feel comfortable in the locker room about coming out, because there are so many jokes," said Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson. "But maybe there will be one, one day, someone who's brave enough to do so. If someone could deal with that and say, 'You know I don't care, I'm here to play football, this is my own deal,' then more power to them."

Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald likes that locker room environment because it puts everyone on equal footing, but says it's not exactly sensitive.

"You would definitely have to have an extremely strong sense of who you were, because guys will mess with you," he said. "Not in a derogatory way, but about your shoes, your earrings, anything."

Ayanbadejo said even though the locker room can be a raucous place, the kind of team-building that brings a varied group of men together and gets them to think of each other as brothers, as family, could include a gay player. To think of NFL players as warriors or modern gladiators is limiting, he said.

"We have so many different kinds of people," Ayanbadejo said, "it's hard to take a paintbrush and say we're all the same kind."

Fujita acknowledges that millions of people watch what happens in the NFL, and take social cues from the attitudes of its players. If a gay player ever came out in the context of playing football, Fujita thinks it would fall on his and other veterans' shoulders to be leaders in the locker room, and show that teams can accept him.

"The ripple effect of the NFL is so far-reaching," Fujita said.

Ayanbadejo said he has had some discussions with teammates over the issue of gay marriage, finding that much of the opposition to it was based on religious grounds. Ayanbadejo, who is not married and has a daughter, sees marriage as a civil institution rather than a religious one. He doesn't think gay marriage would get in the way of what people believe. Despite his opinion, no one around the Ravens has given him a hard time.

John Amaechi, a former NBA player who came out after he retired, has thought about some of the challenges that would face a current player who wanted to come out. He said the religious nature of sports in America -- where teams hold chapel on Sunday, and point to the sky after making a play -- could be a challenge for a gay athlete, because some religions categorize homosexuality as a sin.

He also notes that while black athletes had difficulty breaking into sports -- Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947 -- stereotypes about black men, such as strength and the ability to work long hours, were consistent with qualities desired in an athlete. Gay men might have to contend with long-held ideas about masculinity and athleticism.

"None of the stereotypes about gay people suggest they would be good at sports," Amaechi said.

He pointed out that in some states, it still is legal to fire a person based on sexual orientation, which might inhibit someone from declaring it publicly.

Ayanbadejo said it would be harder to exclude an all-star who came out than a player clinging to a roster spot. Just as players who have exceptional skills don't have to follow every rule, a gay player at the top of his sport would probably not face as much derision.

"If someone is a great player, things become invisible," Ayanbadejo said.

As attitudes change slowly, Ayanbadejo realizes he might be in the vanguard in supporting the issue. Some athletes shy away from taking controversial stands like that. Michael Jordan explained his decision not to oppose Jesse Helms' re-election campaign in North Carolina -- Helms led a 1983 filibuster opposing the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day -- by noting that Republicans buy sneakers too.

Ayanbadejo has never shied from standing on his principles. As a student at UCLA, he opposed the school's decision to do away with affirmative action. He said he thinks it made his path to the NFL more difficult, but equality of opportunity is more important.

"I'm not really trying to sell a pair of shoes, I'm just trying to move things in a positive direction," he said.

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