November 23, 2009

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.He double-checked beforehand, just to make sure. He wanted these kind people to know he wasn't actually a civil rights activist or some marquee player, a name normally worthy of such applause.

But on the evening of Sept. 17, when Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo arrived at 1201 South Sharp Street in Baltimore -- site of the new offices of Equality Maryland, the state's largest non-profit, non-partisan gay rights group -- the crowd "treated me like I was Ray Lewis," the three-time Pro Bowl special-teamer says with a laugh. "I mean, I'm just Brendon Ayanbadejo. They saw me as someone noble and great, but I just have a little bit of foresight. All I did was call a spade a spade."

In sports, unfortunately, certain spades too often go unremarked upon. No matter where a person falls on this country's politico-religious spectrum, the simple fact is that not many pro athletes -- much less those who also play the manliest position (linebacker) in the manliest of sports (football) in the manliest of leagues (the NFL) -- have the stones to write an opinion piece titled, "Same Sex Marriages: What's the Big Deal?" Imagine hearing this declaration inside the average locker room or clubhouse: "I think we will look back in 10, 20, 30 years and be amazed that gays and lesbians did not have the same rights as every one else. How did this ever happen in the land of the free and the home of the brave? Are we really free?"

Of course, such an argument itself is not novel. By Ayanbadejo's own admission, people vastly more eloquent and vastly more courageous have been fighting for this cause for decades. But within a multi-billion-dollar industry that is so culturally venerated and yet, at times, so culturally stagnant, even disturbingly homophobic, such a gesture by an active player is shocking. Humongous. Staggering for the perceived magnitude of risk involved -- to one's image, one's fan-base, one's checkbook, one's safety -- as much as the message itself.

Remember Michael Jordan, the most iconic athlete capitalism ever produced? Remember him shaking off the slightest whiff of political principle like it was Bryon Russell at the foul line?

"It was actually one of my easier pieces to write," says the 33-year-old Ayanbadejo, who has a girlfriend and a young daughter. "I thought it was a no-brainer. I'm pro-fairness, pro-equality. I just don't want people to be alienated."

It's all in line with Ayanbadejo's typical mix of modesty and audacity. He was an under-recruited self-starter who grew up in Santa Cruz, Calif., and leapt from junior college to first-team All-Pac-10 at UCLA. He then survived a gauntlet of 10 different pro teams en route to becoming a CFL All-Star and two-time All-Pro as the bane of kick-returners everywhere.

By the third week of this NFL season, he had finally earned a starting gig as a linebacker, won an AFC Defensive Player of the Week nod and ranked second on the vaunted Ravens defense in tackles.

At which point -- having played in precisely 100 consecutive NFL games and having turned in his very best Ray Lewis impression on the field -- Ayanbadejo tore his left quadriceps tendon against the Patriots on Sept. 4. He won't play again this season, but his rehab is going well and he's studying for the GMAT, part of his dream to become the first African-American athletic director at UCLA.

Not that some new fans working over on South Sharp could be any more impressed.

"Brendon's amazing," says Equality Maryland board president David Toth. "When you get someone like him who has the courage to step out and be that voice, it's enlightening and invigorating."

More than that, it's sportsmanship at its best.

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