NFL's Ayanbadejo On Offensive For Gay Marriage

Listen to Brendon Ayanbadejo on 'Tell Me More'

The NFL's Brendon Ayanbadejo has gone to three Pro Bowls and is a star on the field. But when he recently spoke out in favor of gay marriage, a prominent critic told him to stop talking and focus on football. Ayanbadejo joins host Michel Martin to talk about why he's committed to defending same-sex marriage.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll take a look at the latest technology hitting the market. Do I really need to say the words, iPhone? We'll talk with tech guru Mario Armstrong.

But, first, we turn to the world of pro football and one NFL player who's making headlines for a dust-up off the field and - no - this is not your athletes behaving badly story. Brendon Ayanbadejo is a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. He's been to multiple pro bowls, which is the NFL all-star game, and he's an advocate for same-sex marriage, most recently voicing his support for efforts to uphold marriage equality in Maryland and even offering two tickets to Monday night's season opener to help fundraising along.

Now, that last piece did not go over well with one Maryland state lawmaker. State delegate, Emmett Burns, recently sent a letter to Ravens team owner, saying Ayanbadejo should, quote, "concentrate on football," unquote, and keep quiet on the gay marriage issue, which Brendon Ayanbadejo says he is not going to do. And he is with us now to tell us more about that.

Welcome to the program. Thanks for joining us.

BRENDON AYANBADEJO: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: And I do - I should start by saying, congratulations on Monday night's game, which was crushing to your opponent. So congratulations on that. Nice way to start off.

AYANBADEJO: Thanks. I wish every game could be like that one.

MARTIN: Well, tell us why you decided to speak out in favor of same-sex marriage.

AYANBADEJO: Well, a few years ago when Obama - prior to Obama becoming president and he was actually running to become president, the Republican Party had stated that they were against, you know, gay rights and marriage equality. And everybody knew that, but the Democratic Party kind of skirted, you know, the fence and kind of wanted supporters from both sides of the issue. So I wrote an article in the Huffington Post saying, you know, same-sex marriage - what's the big deal? Love is love. Love is blind. You should be able to love the person, regardless of what gender or whatever.

You know, that was a long time ago and I've been an advocate ever since. And I do pieces here and there and, coincidentally, I did this last - donated two tickets to a fundraiser for marriage equality. And, lo and behold, we had a story - a letter written to the team denouncing my actions and now we're here.

I did it just because it was the right thing to do. And we have to have everybody on the same page in treating everybody equally. And, you know, the fight won't stop until that happens.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit about both things that you talked about. First, this letter, and then the reaction to that letter. So, first, the letter. Had you ever gotten a letter like that? I just want to read a little bit more of it. It's from delegate Emmett Burns, as we said, and to your boss, the team owner, saying that he is requesting that the owner take the necessary action as a national football franchise owner to inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. And he says he knows of no other NFL player who has done what you are doing, which is not true, but I think you are the first and probably the most, you know, outspoken.

How did you hear about this letter, by the way, and what was your reaction when you heard about it?

AYANBADEJO: I heard about it on Twitter and I was a little bit nervous, just because, you know, it's old time politics. It's an old politician writing a letter to, you know, a business and, back in the day, this actually quieted people down back in the day, you know. But you know, it's a new day. It's a new age and the Ravens assured me that everything would be OK and everything's taken off from there.

MARTIN: And when you say taking off from there, you mean what? You've gotten a lot of support from other players.

AYANBADEJO: I mean, this story's got more legs than a dang millipede. The support's been coming worldwide. I've heard from other players on other teams. I've heard from fans from other teams. I've heard from people that didn't even care about football that are now football fans and, of course, the LGBT community. They had my back and I have theirs and it's just - it's been a major outpouring from all over the world, letters from Brazil and Chile, and Canada.

This is something we need. We need it here in the United States and the world needs it, and it's time we start treating our brothers, sisters, friends, relatives equally just like anybody else is treated.

MARTIN: We should mention that we reached out to delegate Burns to get his perspective on this. We haven't heard back, but he did kind of back away from his comments. He told the Baltimore Sun, for example, that upon reflection, he realizes that you have first amendment rights just like he has, you know, to voice his opinion.

But I am curious about whether anybody else has the opinion. You know, whenever a celebrity speaks out on a position that we don't happen to share, sometimes, people are annoyed like, for example, you know, Clint Eastwood, the actor, spoke at the Republican National Convention making comments critical of President Obama, so people thought, you know, why? And, similarly, you know, Bruce Springsteen is known as a strong supporter - has been a strong supporter of presidents in the past and other people would prefer that he not.

So I was curious whether anybody feels that, as a celebrity and football is your job, but it's other people's relaxation. People say, I really don't want to think politics.

AYANBADEJO: Everyone has the choice to do what they please. If somebody doesn't like, you know, what I'm saying or other celebrities' expressions, I guess they don't have to watch them. Right? So, you know, we have this amazing platform and, coincidentally, Muhammad Ali came and spoke with us a couple days ago and you know what he did about speaking out against the Vietnam War. And you look at the Ravens and what is a business's responsibility. And an athlete's not just there to play a sport and a business isn't just there to make money. You have to be sustainable, you have to help people. There's so many more things that you do and we have to take advantage of it and make the world a better place.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with three-time NFL Pro Bowler Brendon Ayanbadejo about a controversy that found him - let's say - he voiced his support for marriage equality. A state lawmaker in Maryland where the Baltimore Ravens' team are located said that he shouldn't have done that, and he is still speaking out, as you heard, and getting a lot of support for it too.

I think some people were surprised by this because football is a contact sport, it's seen as extremely masculine, and I think maybe some people had this idea that there would not be support for gay people, for the LGBT community, or for same-sex marriage. And I wonder, has anybody said that to you, that they're surprised that a professional football player like you is taking this position and really talk about it?

AYANBADEJO: Yeah, there's a lot of people that are surprised, but I'm surprised that they're surprised. You know, I wake up every morning, I give both of my kids a kiss and I give them a hug and tell him have a great day and I tell them I love them and how special they are and, you know, we're people just like everybody else. We have emotions. We're sensitive. We cry. We laugh. We do everything that everybody else does. So some players are against the trafficking of human beings and they have 501(c)3s to help those people specifically. We're in the communities feeding people, educating people. There are so many things that athletes do and it doesn't really get recognized nationally when an athlete does a good thing, that but the second they have a negative incident, then it becomes national news.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, this is your 10th year in the NFL, so congratulations just on that.

AYANBADEJO: Thank you.

MARTIN: Has this whole experience changed anything in the way you think either about the league or about or your own role within it?

AYANBADEJO: Well, that's a pretty deep question. I have a tremendous platform, like we had talked about earlier, and I'm here to play football and through football there's so many peoples lives I can touch and make a difference. And, you know, things that are really dear to me are children, education, health, equality, gay rights and treating animals fairly as well. So, you know, while I have this chance at playing football, I'm not just going to sit here and play football, I'm going to help as many people as I can, and I think that's a responsibility that a lot of athletes, they really grasp to and they take advantage of that. And it's not everybody, every athlete's job to do that. If you have it within yourself and you have the power to do it, then you should do such. I mean Charles Barkley said, hey, I'm not anybody's role model, you know, that's one of his most famous quotes, but at the same time, if you want to be you can be, and a lot of us are willing to and want to be as well.

MARTIN: Brendon Ayanbadejo is a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. He's been selected for the Pro Bowl three times; that's the NFL All-Star Game. He's an advocate, as you just heard him say, for marriage equality, same-sex marriage. And he was kind enough to join us from his home in Maryland.

Brendon Ayanbadejo, thank you so much for speaking with us.

AYANBADEJO: Thanks for having me on.

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