Few things have the power to simultaneously unite and divide people quite like politics, but sports come pretty close. And few sports have quite the hold over American culture as football. Even baseball, our "national pastime," isn't quite as ubiquitous; the World Series isn't the major cultural event that the Super Bowl is.
Football culture is also very problematic, though, when it comes to women and queer people. It's the only one of the "Big Four" sports (which also includes baseball, basketball and ice hockey) that is almost exclusively male at both the professional and non-professional levels. Your high school probably had women's basketball and hockey teams, and at least a women's softball if not baseball team - but most likely not a women's football team. As such, football culture tends to be associated with extreme masculinity, to the exclusion of people who don't fit the mold. One of the most knowledgeable and passionate football fans I've ever met is my mom, and yet so often I have to see her condescended to in football discussions by dudes with half her knowledge of the game. The message is loud and clear: This isn't the place for the ladies. This isn't the place for people who don't fit the ultra-masculine norm.
So it's interesting to see how the NFL is becoming the latest playing field for the national debate over same-sex marriage. One of the first NFL players to line for the cause was Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita – then of the New Orleans Saints – when he spoke out in favor of the National Equality March in an October 2009 interview. At the time, Fujita was an anomaly. But this year, with four states deciding high-profile ballot measures on same-sex marriage – three of them with NFL teams – NFL players have used their positions in their local communities to advocate for their positions on the issue, both for and against.
The center of this debate has been the Baltimore Ravens, particularly linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. His outspoken support for marriage equality efforts – particularly as part of the Yes on 6 campaign's attempts to reach out to Marylanders of color (Ayanbadejo is Nigerian-American) – became a cause for controversy starting in August of this year, when MD State Delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. wrote a letter to Ravens owner Steve Biscotti criticizing Ayanbadejo's advocacy. Burns, who is opposed to marriage equality, wrote that Ayanbadejo should "concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fanbase" and urged Biscotti to silence Ayanbadejo. Instead, the letter wound up in the hands of local news channel WBALTV, and eventually got an international audience on Yahoo! Sports. Burns was roundly denounced and eventually backed off.
One of the people denouncing Burns's letter was another NFL player – Chris Kluwe, a punter for the Minnesota Vikings. In a brilliant response on Deadspin, Kluwe outlined everything that was wrong with the anti-gay marriage argument in the most hilarious way possible:
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. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?
In closing, I would like to say that I hope this letter, in some small way, causes you to reflect upon the magnitude of the colossal foot in mouth clusterf*ck you so brazenly unleashed on a man whose only crime was speaking out for something he believed in. Best of luck in the next election; I'm fairly certain you might need it.
Even before he stood up for Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe had been active in fighting the Minnesota ballot initiative for an anti-marriage-equality constitutional amendment; he had recorded advertisements for Minnesotans for Marriage Equality. But his latest advertisement, released only a few days ago, makes direct reference to his "lustful cockmonster" article; you can listen to it at the link.
And lately – it's not just the players who are taking stances on the issue; a former NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliablue, and his wife Chan recently donated $100,000 to Marylanders for Marriage Equality, calling it "a capital investment in our nation's infrastructure" at a fundraiser for the group.
Unfortunately, not every footballer who has taken a stance on the issue has joined the pro-equality side. Another Raven, center Matt Birk, has spoken out against Maryland's Question 6, recording ads for the anti-marriage-equality side and writing op-eds on it for both the Baltimore Sun and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. While clearly aiming for polite and respectful, the editorials' arguments were – like nearly all anti-equality arguments – rather silly and easily debunked, a service quickly provided by Kluwe in an extremely intelligent, thoughtful response to Birk. Seriously, Kluwe's six-point rebuttal is the sort of thing worth bookmarking for the next time you're in an argument with an anti-gay-marriage friend or relative. No "lustful cockmonsters" here, just logic:
The only impact same-sex marriage will have on your children is if one of them turns out to be gay and cannot get married. What will you do (and I ask this honestly) if one or more of your kids ends up being gay? Will you love them any less? What will your actions speak to them, 15 years from now, when they ask you why they can’t enjoy the same relationship that you and your wife have now? And if your response is “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it”, well, for a lot of people that bridge is here right now. They’re trying to cross it, but the way is barred, and I will do my best to tear those barricades down any way I can because I believe that we are infringing on the free will of other human beings by denying them their basic right to live free of oppression. I love my daughters for their minds and their personalities, not for who they love as adults. That’s none of my damn business, and I will support them in life no matter who they want to marry.
Ultimately, the fact that marriage equality is making inroads in a part of American culture that's drenched in traditional heterosexual masculinity – American football – is the real fear of people like Burns have of players speaking out: it forces a lot of people with no connection to queer culture to pay attention it. It's hard to call it a "fringe issue" when the organization supporting it is fundraising with a Monday Night Football party featuring Ayanbadejo and MD Governor Martin O'Malley.
And not only do pro-equality football players like Ayanbadejo, Fujita and Kluwe have the ability to change the laws on marriage equality, but also to change the culture of their sport. By making clear their support for queer people, it means there's more of a chance that a queer footballer might be comfortable being out to his team. So far, all three of these men advocating for equality are heterosexual themselves, but who knows how long it would be before we have a gay, bisexual or transgender NFL player advocating for their own equality? Maybe sooner than we think.