With states such as Minnesota and Maryland voting on same-sex marriage amendments in this year’s election, a surprising group is taking on the issue (and free speech): NFL players. In one early example, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo publicly supported gay marriage in 2009. He was met with some shock and backlash, but remains outspoken on the issue. So much so that an elected official sat up and took notice this fall, leading to a rather public war of words.
Rep. Burns’s controversial letter to Ravens owner Scott Bisciotti.
Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. wrote to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to “inhibit such expressions from your employee.” In the letter, released by a local television station and republished by Yahoo! Sports, Burns goes on to state that “many of my constituents and your football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide,” and assert that he had no knowledge of any other players taking similar stances. Burns turned to familiar ideas about sport, saying Ayanbedejo had no place in the same-sex marriage debate because such political issues have no place “in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment, and excitement.”
Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe did not take kindly to Burns’s request for censorship. He went on to write an open, colorful, scathing, and, many would argue, entertaining response (in clean—but hilarious—and uncensored versions) to the Maryland delegate. In his letter, originally published by Gawker Media’s sport site Deadspin, Kluwe condemns Burns’s attempts to quiet Ayanbedejo, saying that not only do politics hold an important place in sport (as evidenced by athletes’ successful work to end segregation in their sports), free speech is a protected right, and, even further, stating simply “that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life.” He closed by refuting the politician’s note that players haven’t been talking about gay marriage: “I’ve been vocal as hell about [it.]”
Other players took to the papers and airwaves to respond to Burns, too. Ayanbedejo’s teammate (who has played with Kluwe in the past), Ravens Center Matt Birk wrote for the Star Tribune
, defending his teammate’s right to free speech. Instead of backing Ayanbedejo’s beliefs, however, Birk articulately and respectfully voiced his opposition, stating that marriage should remain between a man and a woman because same-sex marriage would negatively affect the welfare of children. This time, Kluwe, too, responded in the Star Tribune
, armed with facts rather than expletives. He delineated the problems he saw in Birk’s argument one by one, providing many well-honed arguments and citing various social facts, statistics, and a meta-study
showing no difference between children of heterosexual and GLBT families as borne out by 17 social scientific studies.
In the end, all of these players demonstrated the power of free speech, showing they had every right to be on the field of public discourse. Why should they be forced to the sidelines when they can bring their opinions and even well researched arguments to an often heated and controversial public debate—simply because they play a game for a living? It’s certainly not news
that politicians (from Emmett C. Burns, Jr. to Barack Obama and everyone in between) have used sport to their advantage for many years.
To follow the unfolding debates, you can find Brendon Ayanbadejo (@brendon310) and Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarCraft) on Twitter, Maryland State Representative Emmett C. Burns, Jr. at his official state website, and information about Matt Birk (including headlines) at his official NFL player page.