Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe are ex-NFLers who take the social justice movement seriously. Ayanbadejo and Kluwe are a fascinating Dynamic Duo, who took different roads to reach the equality platform they stand on today. Both are UCLA alumni, but they didn't meet on campus or at an LGBTQ+ rally. Ayanbadejo and Kluwe literally ran into each other for the first time in 2006 during a punt return.
“The first time I met Chris Kluwe, the Bears were playing the Minnesota Vikings and Devin Hester was behind me. I ran over Chris, while Devin ran off for a touchdown on a punt.”, Ayanbadejo recalls with a chuckle.
Despite the presumed post-concussive state of that particular memory, Kluwe concurs.
“I'd say the first time we met was when Brendon absolutely decleated me on a punt return against the Bears in 2006, which taught me a valuable lesson on making sure I didn't just track the returner while running down the field.
“We didn't really know each other prior to fighting for the LGBTQ+ cause, but once I learned about Brendon, who's been doing this for far longer than I have, I felt proud and honored to be a small part of the tradition of UCLA alums working towards social justice.”, Kluwe told OSDB Sports.
Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro-Bowler and former Super Bowl Champion, has been passionate about equal rights since he was a child. Born to an Irish-American mother and a Nigerian father, Ayanbadejo was often teased about his parents’ right to be married. This harsh treatment had a tremendous impact and helped to forge him into the equal rights advocate we see today.
In 2009, Ayanbadejo published a blog in the Huffington Post entitled “Same Sex Marriages: What’s the Big Deal?”, and he’s been publicly battling for equal rights since. Sports Illustrated named Ayanbadejo the Sports Activist of the Year shortly thereafter, and he instantly became a leading spokesperson for LGBTQ+ rights. As a heterosexual male athlete playing in a testosterone-laden sport, Ayanbadejo’s voice emerged as a powerful breath of fresh air for the LGBTQ+ community in particular.
However, Ayanbadejo is adamant that he’s fighting for equal rights on all fronts.
“While we’re going to highlight LGBTQ+ for Pride Month, and Junetheenth just happened, that’s Jubilee Day and Emancipation Day for slaves in Galveston, Texas, who didn’t get the message until two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, we’re taking everybody with us. We’re not leaving anyone behind, and that’s important.”, Ayanbadejo told OSDB Sports. “It’s a whole movement. It’s not just about lesbians, it’s not just about gays. There are people that are questioning, there are transgender and bisexual people, different sexual orientations, people who identify with different genders, and it’s a complex issue. One person’s plight is not more important than any other person’s. That goes for Black rights, and Asian rights, immigrant's rights, women’s rights, and so on and so forth. Everyone’s equality and freedom is equally important.”
Kluwe, a former punter for the Minnesota Vikings, first exploded onto the civil rights scene in 2012. Kluwe rose to the defense of fellow UCLA alumni Ayanbadejo, who had spoken out in favor of the legalization of gay marriage in Maryland. Ayanbadejo was playing for the Baltimore Ravens, and the organization received pressure from Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. to silence the special teams standout.
Burns wrote to Ravens owner Steve Biscotti, imploring him to “inhibit such expressions from your employee.” What followed was a scathing letter from Kluwe to Burns, which was posted on Deadspin. Kluwe didn’t pull any punches, utterly lambasting the politician from intro to closing. The letter to Burns served as a booster for the gay rights movement, but created tension between Kluwe and the Minnesota coaching staff.
Kluwe played eight seasons for the Vikings, setting eight team records in the process, but was released by Minnesota after the 2012 season. It’s reasonable to conclude that Kluwe’s outspoken activism on this controversial issue may have ultimately resulted in the end of his NFL career. Kluwe sued the Vikings for what transpired, and donated the settlement money he was awarded to LGBTQ+ charities. Kluwe’s brother-in-law is gay, but the ex-Viking says that he would be in the equality fight even if that wasn’t the case.
As part of the legal fallout, Minnesota hosted a summit focused on the inclusion of LGBTQ athletes in sports. The summit was held on June 21, 2018, at what was then the Vikings’ new practice facility. Kluwe helped to coordinate and plan the event, and 18 people spoke at the event, including USA Olympic diver Greg Louganis.
Kluwe recently told OSDB, “I think the Summit was a gesture the Vikings were legally obligated to fulfill, which they eventually did, but the lack of attendance by any league-wide ownership, coaches, players, or game-facing personnel makes it clear there is still plenty of work to be done by both the Vikings and the NFL as a whole. The people who did attend were fantastic, as were the presentations and information provided, but to the best of my knowledge no other team has engaged in anything similar, and I haven't heard of any follow-up action from the Vikings. In order to have meaningful progress on LGBTQ+ rights, there needs to be buy-in at all levels, starting from the very top.”
Kluwe is correct, and the NFL appears to be moving in the right direction. Las Vegas Raiders DE Carl Nassib came out as gay on social media Monday, and he is the first active NFL player to do so. Nassib’s announcement comes more than seven years after a promising NFL hopeful made a similar declaration.
University of Missouri DE Michael Sam was the SEC’s co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and announced he was gay prior to the 2014 NFL Draft. Sam’s draft stock seemed to have dropped, and the L.A. Rams finally took him in the seventh round at pick 249. During the preseason, Sam led the Rams in sacks (3) and was on track to become a trailblazer for the LGBTQ+ equality effort. Or so we thought.
Sam was beaten out for a roster spot by an undrafted rookie, and never played a single regular-season snap in the NFL. The All-American was eventually signed by the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, but Sam never saw the field there, either.
In 2015, Sam signed a two-year deal with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, becoming the first openly gay player in CFL history. However, there was no storybook ending in Montreal. Sam retired on Aug. 14, 2015, citing mental health issues. When asked if they believed that Sam may have been “railroaded” by the NFL due to his choice to come out, Kluwe and Ayanbadejo offered differing but equally powerful assessments of the situation.
“Absolutely.”, Kluwe said. “It would be very easy for the NFL owners to put out a united statement saying that homophobia and discrimination is not tolerated in the league, that coaches and administrative personnel who engage in it will be fired, and then ‘enforce’ that statement, but it hasn't happened. The owners have the money, which means they have the control, and being anti-discrimination means actively fighting against it at all times. I haven't seen the NFL take any serious steps towards doing that, but I have seen plenty of PR attempts trying to get more people to consume their product disguised as progressivism.”
Ayanbadejo was willing to give the NFL the benefit of the doubt, stating “I don’t think Sam was railroaded. I just think that to make it to the NFL the timing has to be right, and for whatever reason it wasn’t in the cards for Sam to make either team. I think the teams saw it as a meritocracy, and they ultimately awarded the position to the best player.
“That’s the way that I perceive it from the outside looking in. I would like to think that organizations wouldn’t be that diabolical that they would exclude an amazing player. Who knows, maybe that’s my Utopian view. I know that these things do happen, though. Look at Colin Kaepernick.”
Things didn’t go as hoped for Sam, but the overall response to Nassib’s announcement has been encouraging. The Raiders' organization immediately released a statement in support of Nassib’s decision, tweeting “Proud of you, Carl.” next to a screenshot of his statement. Las Vegas head coach Jon Gruden told ESPN, “I learned a long time ago what makes a man different is what makes him great.”
Our society is slowly becoming desensitized to the existence of the LGBTQ+ community, and Nassib has taken a bold step forward for the equality movement.
“I don’t know Carl but first and foremost I wish him the best of luck and want to congratulate him for living his truth.”, Ayanbadejo told OSDB Sports recently. “We want to normalize being a part of the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ teachers, politicians, athletes, military, lawyers, doctors etc. Obviously a football player is the headline, but we all need to make it a non-issue. Jackie Robinson is known for breaking the color barrier in MLB. Carl Nassib can do the same for our gay brothers in the NFL.”
Kluwe adds, “This is a watershed moment because it makes it that much easier for the next guy to come out, and the next guy after that. It’s also heartening to see the public support from both Roger Goodell and the Raiders organization on social media, and hopefully it will translate to internal support as well.”
Nassib donated $100,000 to The Trevor Project, an organization which provides crisis and suicide intervention services to LGBTQ+ youth. “I think the Trevor Project does excellent work, and has done so for quite a while now.”, Kluwe told OSDB Sports. “No one should ever be put in a position where they feel like their life isn't worth living, and it's an indictment on our society as a whole that there are still so many LGBTQ+ individuals who feel pressured into such a place.”
Organizations like The Trevor Project, GLAAD, and “You Can Play” are all integral to the advancement of the LGBTQ+ equality movement.
Kluwe told OSDB, “I've done some work with GLAAD and You Can Play over the years, generally by either amplifying a message they want to get out or occasionally writing something, and I think they've done some pretty good work helping people understand that LGBTQ+ rights aren't just some nebulous idea, but things that have very concrete real world consequences. Any outlet that's willing to treat human beings like human beings is important, especially when there can still be significant pushback on doing so.”
So, what can the average person do to help advance the progress of the social justice movement? Ayanbadejo tells OSDB Sports, “To begin with, don’t say ‘All Lives Matter’. The reason why you don’t say that is because you’re normalizing it. You’re saying that houses that aren’t on fire are just as important as the houses that are on fire, which we know is not true. Saying ‘all lives matter’ is discounting all the people that have been abused, suppressed, looked over, marginalized, murdered, forgotten, when there’s a whole category of people that have never faced any type of discrimination at all. All lives will matter one day, but you’ve gotta start with gay lives, you’ve gotta to start with black lives, you’ve gotta start with trans and women’s lives, and then we can go from there.”
Kluwe chose to focus on the legislative aspect of progress.
“Pay attention to state and local elections, and make sure you show up to vote in them. It all starts locally.”, Kluwe told OSDB.
When asked which piece of current legislation should be given special attention, Kluwe said “The John Lewis Voting Rights Act. There are a multitude of anti-trans rights bills being proposed across the country. Protecting *everyone's* right to vote, free of interference, is the bedrock of democracy. Without free and fair voting, it will be simple for small-minded bigots to write bigoted laws because they'll have rigged the system to where they're the only ones with the power to do so.”, Kluwe concluded.
Ayanbadejo and Kluwe each bring a unique and valuable perspective to the equal rights fight, and positive momentum is building. The first step for us as individuals is to have a clear awareness of the situation, and to actively engage in compassionate and kind behavior in our moment-to-moment interactions. Every decision we make in this life has the power to contribute to the problem or to be part of the solution. What will your legacy be?