Only seven days ago, the biggest story leading up to the Super Bowl XLVII was probably that the two competing coaches are brothers. What a difference a week can make. After an incredibly eventful pre-game week, this Sunday’s match will be as much about gay rights as about a championship title. So how did this happen?
You could argue that this began back in 2009 when Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (image: bottom left) began speaking out in support of same-sex marriage, but that wouldn’t quite be accurate. Ayanbajedo’s equality campaign failed to generate much interest until September of last year when Maryland State Delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. wrote a letter to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, demanding sanctions against Ayanbadejo.
“I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football Franchise Owner,” Burns, Jr. wrote, “to inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions.” Ironically, Burns, Jr. wrote in the same letter that football is “…a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment, and excitement.” [Emphasis added.]
Bisciotti and the Ravens backed Ayanbadejo in the most graceful way possible–with an acknowledgement of receipt of the letter, and no further comment.
Ayanbadejo did not cease and desist, and according to the linebacker, the world of football was largely supportive. Arguably the most famous supporter, and certainly the most linguistically creative, was Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, who responded with his own letter to Emmett C. Burns, Jr.
I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won’t even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population—rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. 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.
(Emphasis added, read the full letter on Deadspin. No really, go read it.)
Not surprisingly, the letter went viral.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens kept winning, and ultimately earned their place to compete in the Super Bowl. Their opponents? The San Francisco 49ers, who made news last year when they became the first NFL team to produce a video for the “It Gets Better“ campaign, a project in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth.
The Ravens’ Ayanbajedo took his upcoming Super Bowl appearance as an opportunity to announce that he intended to harness the event media to promote a gay rights agenda. “It’s a message of positivity. It’s a message of equality. And it’s a chance to get it out,” Ayanbajedo said. “It’s not going to affect the way I play football but its going to affect a lot of people’s lives off the field.”
For a while, it looked like the 47th Super Bowl would be the gayest ever. But then things got weird.
Lange: What about gay guys, do any of them approach you?
Culliver: I don’t do the gay guys man. I don’t do that.
Lange: Any other 49ers?
Culliver: We don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah…can’t be…in the locker room man. Nah.
Lange: OK, so they’d have to stay… keep it a secret.
Culliver: Yeah, come out 10 years later after that.
It didn’t take long for the 49ers to release and official statement, which read, in part:
“The San Francisco 49ers reject the comments that were made yesterday, and have addressed the matter with Chris. There is no place for discrimination within our organization at any level. We have and always will proudly support the LGBT community.”
There was no mention of any official sanction against the cornerback. Culliver also released an apology, of sorts, claiming that “The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel.”
At this point, media outlets began reporting on the irony of the 49ers’ It Gets Better video, and that’s when things got really weird.
Yesterday, two of the 49ers from the video–Ahmad Brooks and Isaac Sopoaga–denied any involvement in the It Gets Better project.
“This is America and if someone wants to be gay, they can be gay,” Brooks told the publication. “But I didn’t make any video.” Later, after he was reportedly shown the video on an iPhone, the player clarified, “Oh, that. It was an anti-bullying video, not a gay [rights] video.”
Even more curiously, Sopoaga similarly denied taking part in the clip, even as a teammate reportedly tried to jog his memory. “I never went,” he declared. “And now someone is using my name.”
Last night, It Gets Better co-founder Dan Savage tweeted that they had removed the 49ers’ video from the project page, adding the hash tags #homophobia, #NFL, and #horseshit.
As the 49ers continued to rack up spectacularly bad press, the Ravens quietly strengthened their position. This morning, Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs told the press that he and the rest of the Ravens would welcome an openly gay player, noting, “We don’t care. Our biggest thing in the locker room is to just have fun and stay loose.”
With only two days left until kick-off, the two teams could not be more divided on this issue, and it’s become impossible to distinguish between the side and the story. Don’t be surprised if you see a groundswell of support for Baltimore. As feminists have been saying for decades, the personal is political–a message Ayanbajedo and the Ravens are delivering in support of a human rights agenda. Win or lose on Sunday, San Francisco has come out on the wrong side.
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