Ravens' Ayanbadejo tackles tough issues

Former Bear linebacker not afraid to address his advocacy of gay marriage

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NEW ORLEANS — When Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo finally stood on the sporting world's stage he openly sought Tuesday at Super Bowl XLVII Media Day, reluctance oddly overcame him.

At first, the NFL's most outspoken advocate of gay marriage who welcomed the opportunity to share his views with 5,000 media members didn't sound too thrilled to articulate the reasons why. His voice lacked conviction, his words cohesion. It was like going to see a blockbuster action movie and they showed a B-level romantic-comedy.

"Actually, I talked about that so I don't want to keep touching on that subject," Ayanbadejo told a mass of reporters. "Obviously, we're at the Super Bowl and it's the pinnacle of sports in the United States so I just really want to focus."

Ayanbadejo's initial reticence reflected his desire to avoid becoming a distraction but also reinforced how uncomfortable it can be to spread a message of inclusion in a football culture known to resist it. Gradually, the crowd around Ayanbadejo thinned and the former Bears special-teams standout loosened up. Teammates with bigger names occupied 15 Superdome podiums so Ayanbadejo had the floor of the stadium, literally and figuratively, and took advantage when asked again why he promotes gay rights.

"Equality is a relevant issue," Ayanbadejo said. "Whether you decide to speak out about it or not, it's going to affect everybody one way or another. Hopefully I'll be able to win a Super Bowl and do the entire media circuit so I can talk about these things."

These things on Ayanbadejo's agenda go beyond gay marriage, for which he gained renown in 2009 after the heterosexual father of two wrote a piece for Huffington Post supporting same-sex unions. Ayanbadejo also feels passionate about anti-bullying campaigns. He engages in fundraising efforts for ALS research in the name of stricken teammate O.J. Brigance. He fights against human trafficking and for education.

No wonder "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" reached out via Twitter to see if Ayanbadejo would appear next month. Athletes who seek to improve their communities aren't necessarily rare. Athletes who seek to improve their communities while broaching taboo topics are.

"I told Brendon he's my hero," Wade Davis, a gay former NFL journeyman player who came out after his brief career ended in 2003, said over the phone. "To talk about something like that with the pressure of Super Bowl week shows he's a man of his word and focused on the mission."

Nobody would consider Ayanbadejo an NFL star. His last of three Pro Bowl appearances, including two with the Bears, came in 2008. He has spent much of his 10-year career doing dirty work as an undervalued and overlooked special-teams player. Yet that never stopped Ayanbadejo from asserting whatever influence he had to try to change the world one cause at a time.

Most notably, Ayanbadejo drew national attention last summer publicly endorsing a Maryland ballot initiative legalizing gay marriage after state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote a letter asking Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to muzzle his linebacker. The measure passed and Ayanbadejo kept talking, such as Tuesday when he envisioned the first gay NFL player coming out.

"There are already gay players in the NFL," Ayanbadejo said. "I don't know when people will be ready. But hopefully they'll be ready when it happens because it's going to happen in an NFL locker room."

Ayanbadejo thinks the Ravens locker room ultimately benefited from the open debate between him and center Matt Birk, a Catholic father of six who wrote an editorial opposing gay marriage. Coach John Harbaugh stayed neutral, the two socially conscious teammates remained friends and the Ravens developed a deeper respect for one another.

"It galvanized us as a team," Ayanbadejo said. "Most NFL teams don't need political issues to divide them, so with us talking openly about them and different advocacies it really brought us closer together.''

This Super Bowl trip feels different to Ayanbadejo from the one with the Bears six years ago when he said, "we were just happy to be there, like you're on vacation." This one carries a now-or-never feeling for a 36-year-old contemplating retirement. Ayanbadejo is on track to receive his MBA from George Washington University in July, the same time his 22-month-old son Amadeus will undergo surgery to correct a congenital heart defect. The man of principle has priorities likely to affect his football future.

Whenever Ayanbadejo retires, he believes he will leave behind a more tolerant league than the one he entered a decade ago.

"The young guys in the NFL now are a lot more open-minded and progressive," Ayanbadejo said. "It gives you an idea of where we're going as a people and a nation."

Wherever it is headed, Ayanbadejo vows to be among the people leading the way.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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