Same-Sex Marriage Debate Collides With NFL

Melissa Block talks to Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine, about how the issue of same-sex marriage has collided with the NFL.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The debate over same-sex marriage has collided with the world of professional football in a loud and public way. Let's roll back. It started with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who's a vocal supporter of legalizing same-sex marriage, an issue on the Maryland ballot this November.

Well, that drew the ire of Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr., a Democrat, who wrote a letter to the Ravens' owner. He said he was appalled and aghast that a Ravens player would, in his words, step into this controversial divide. Burns called on the Ravens to order Ayanbadejo to cease and desist.

Well that, in turn, drew a lengthy, extremely colorful response from another NFL player, Chris Kluwe, punter for the Minnesota Vikings. Writing on the sports website Deadspin, Kluwe defended his fellow player and called Burns out for what he called his vitriolic hatred and bigotry.

And that, according to sportswriter Dave Zirin, is arguably the greatest political statement by any athlete ever. Zirin is sports editor for The Nation magazine. He joins me here in the studio. Welcome.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, great to be here.

BLOCK: And there's a lot in this letter that we can't quote because it is extremely profane, but I wonder if you can pick out a section that you thought was especially meaningful or powerful.

ZIRIN: No, absolutely. First of all, what made the letter so amazing is that it hit on three critical points that I thought just gave it an incredible flavor. I mean, the first point is just the whole idea of an elected official ordering an owner, basically putting out a directive to an owner of a sports franchise to silence one of his players.

And as Chris Kluwe, someone who's an outspoken athlete, says that's ridiculous, the idea that we should just shut up and play. So he takes on that argument that you hear very often in sports. The second part is that Chris Kluwe draws upon the history of struggle in the NFL, particularly against racism and how courageous people were in the '50s and '60s to desegregate the National Football League.

But then the heart of it is how unabashedly unashamed Chris Kluwe spells out why he is for marriage equality. And the part that was very striking to me, and I know has been striking to other folks as well both inside and outside the NFL, is when Kluwe wrote: You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil right struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?

BLOCK: And what's important to note here is that Emmett Burns, the delegate, is a black pastor. And Kluwe is making that point that, as an African-American and as a religious man, you should value the First Amendment.

ZIRIN: Absolutely. And that's another part of this story, which is I think really interesting is that, first of all, Delegate Burns is a Democrat. People would think that Democrats would be less vitriolic and also that he is African-American. And I'll tell you something I talked to one person who made the point that it bothered them that Delegate Burns went straight to the owner of the Ravens instead of trying to talk to Brendon Ayanbadejo himself.

BLOCK: The latest development on this is that delegate, Emmett Burns, has now walked back on his demand that the Ravens silence Ayandadejo. He says he has his First Amendment rights. Put this in some context for us. How unusual is it for NFL players to be so vocal in support of same-sex marriage?

ZIRIN: It's changed so much in recent years. You never would have heard of an NFL player doing this as recently as five years ago. But, really, since 2009, 2010, you have a whole layer of players who've come forward and spoken out. Players like Scott Fujita of the Cleveland Browns. Michael Irvin, who's in the NFL Hall of Fame, did a big interview where he talked about gay members of his own family and why he supports gay rights.

Even Rob Gronkowski who's the all-pro tight end for the Patriots, the man known as Gronk, has come out publicly saying he would have no problem whatsoever with having a gay teammate. And the latest development is that the San Francisco 49ers became the first team in the NFL to do one of those it-gets-better anti-bullying public service announcements.

BLOCK: Dave Zirin, thanks so much for coming in.

ZIRIN: My privilege, thank you.

BLOCK: Dave Zirin is sports editor for The Nation.

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