Ayanbadejo reshapes LGBT advocacy in sports

Brendon Ayanbadejo really stood out as mixed-race kid in Chicago and in his father’s native Nigeria. At a very young age he became attuned to issues of identity.

As a teen, he lived with his family in a dorm for LGBT students at the University of California, Santa Cruz (his step-father was the dorm’s headmaster). From this experience, he thought no differently about LGBT people than he did straight people.

Ayanbadejo, a former Baltimore Ravens linebacker, said in the Baltimore Sun, “I learned people are just people.”

Ayanbadejo has taken those early life lessons and experiences and used them to fuel his role as an LGBT advocate. In 2009 he publicly announced his support for marriage equality, which was a rare and groundbreaking moment for a sports star to do at the time. He continued his advocacy through the Ravens Super Bowl victory last season and beyond.

When asked about his commitment to the cause since retired from football, Ayanbadejo said, “It’s just one of the pieces of me…It’s just something I do. It doesn’t take up all of my time, but it’s something I live and breathe.” As a straight, married entrepreneur with two kids and now as a sports analyst, he finds time to take to the stage around the country to speak to young students and athletes about bullying or to corporate executives about equality. The three-time Pro Bowl selection has spoken at places including Harvard University, ESPN and Google.

He’s also in the process of creating a campaign for Athlete Ally, a non-profit organization focused on ending discrimination against LGBT people in sports, for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

This month, Ayanbadejo appeared in front of a couple hundred students at McDaniel College in Westminster to talk about knowing gay people all his life and wishing that the NFL would take more of a stand for LGBT rights. He added that the NFL is “not lollygagging” but that they are still “hesitant to pull the trigger” on ending discrimination.

Jennifer Jimenez Marana, McDaniel’s new director of diversity and multicultural affairs invited Ayanbadejo to the McDaniel College campus. She noted that having him on campus was a great way to launch their new “inclusive language” campaign, but also to attract students who may not usually come to diversity-oriented events.

The NFL chief human resources officer, Robert Gulliver, noted that the league has already stepped up anti-discrimination efforts by emphasizing to all general managers and head coaches the importance of diversity (including the LGBT community), and incorporating such ideas into rookie training. Gulliver stated that the NFL has “proactively formed partnerships with LGBT organizations in active dialogue on LGBT diversity”.

Ayanbadejo has been applauded for his early advocacy on an topic that has been taboo in the sports world, “he took this stance before the topic really became any kind of controversy…”, said sports marketing and branding consultant Anthony Fernandez.

Fernandez noted that the demand for athletes who can speak to LGBT issues “has probably quadrupled” in the past year. For top-flight athletes the fee required can be pretty pricey. Ayanbadejo has never been about the money and doesn’t always require a fee, “he just wants to spread his message as wide as possible”, said Fernandez.

Sports are the highlight of our society’s attraction today. Having athletes speak out and educate youth about bullying and diversity is an added plus for the LGBT community. By having athletes be allies, then the sports world as we see it will begin to transform into a more diversified and accepting environment.

At last years GLAAD Media Awards in New York City, Ayanbadejo was accompanied by Minnesota Vikings player Chris Kluwe as they came together for equality.

"Our openly gay player is going to show up and play baseball or football, of course any day now, and when he does he'll know guys like myself and Chris Kluwe will definitely have his back," said Ayanbadejo at the GLAAD Media Awards. "With GLAAD's help we're going to win the fight and respect for equality, and you know why? Because love conquers all and positivity always wins." 

GLAAD has been working with professional sports teams, leagues, and player to address the persistent problem of homophobia in the game and on the sidelines by encouragin media outlets to report on these issues. GLAAD also amplifies the voices of athletes who have come out and elevates, in the media, the message of allies on the field.