How did the Super Bowl land on the front lines of the culture war?

A Raven and a 49er sit on opposite sides of the equality fight, as the NFL creates gay rights' biggest stage

Topics: Brendon Ayanbadejo, chris culliver, Kwame Harris, Gay, Gay Rights, Marriage equality, Football, Beyonce, Super Bowl,

How did the Super Bowl land on the front lines of the culture war?Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Culliver (Credit: AP/Paul Sakuma/Reuters/Sean Gardner)

As the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens prepare to face off on Super Bowl Sunday, each team has a player astride a cultural fault line. Baltimore’s Brendon Ayanbadejo has led a charge in favor of gay equality, while San Francisco’s Chris Culliver has condemned gays and declared that he doesn’t want to play with them.

How did the NFL create the most high-profile (and probably most important post-election year) stage for gay issues? Just this week, former 49er Kwame Harris was outed after a domestic violence dispute with his ex-boyfriend. And today, Connor Barwin, Houston Texans’ popular “hipster” linebacker, is set to become the latest high-profile jock announcing his support for gay rights through Athlete Ally, joining Ayanbadejo and a group of other straight athletes  including Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings and Sean Avery, formerly of hockey’s New York Rangers.

Connor Barwin
(credit: AP/Gail Burton)

With the U.S. military finally accepting gays and lesbians within their ranks, it’s as though the next most macho American institution — football — was  primed for its own evolution. And there are plenty of similarities within the two cultures; asked to compare the former “don’t ask, don’t tell” world with  professional sports, OutSports editor Cyd Zeigler said, “What makes them similar is the shower; athletes not wanting to shower with a gay athlete — which is totally insane. There have been people who’ve been openly gay in the military for years. People have known.”

That seemed to be behind Culliver’s remarks to Artie Lange:  “Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah … can’t be … in the locker room man. Nah.”

“I don’t do the gay guys, man,” Culliver said. “I don’t do that. No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.”

Harris — freshly outed against his will — has condemned the comments. Meanwhile, whether he likes it or not, Culliver has a gay constituency in the bleachers — Sports Illustrated recently published a photo of two male 49ers fans kissing in a sports bar.

But Culliver’s fears may be a moot point, as there are no publicly out players in any of the “big four” professional sports (the baseball, hockey, basketball, and football leagues). Of course there’ve been known to be gays in sports leagues; gay former cornerback Wade Davis told the Daily Beast that “There’s probably at least one guy on a team that everyone knows is gay and no one’s saying anything. I guarantee that exists. Because guys grow up just wanting to be athletes. They didn’t want to be the gay athlete.”

You Might Also Like

So it falls to straight athletes to defend rights — all the way to the Super Bowl, perhaps. And maybe football is simply following the culture. “Where society changes,” said Brian Ellner, a marriage equality advocate who has counseled Ayanbadejo, ”you get pressure from the fans. It was a very big deal when Jackie Robinson broke through the color ranks. When you see the level of support for marriage equality among young people, this generation is going to demand it.” Said Hudson Taylor, Athlete Ally’s founder, “Every single week there’s another athlete that wants to join on.”

Ellner, the marriage equality activist, claimed that Culliver’s anti-gay position was coming to be a minority view: “Certain language and attitudes are no longer acceptable — just as they are outside sports.” And, indeed, despite an NFL-sanctioned gospel-music celebration in New Orleans stacked with explicitly anti-gay performers and religious leaders (gay fans will have to console themselves with Beyoncé at halftime), the 49ers not named Chris Culliver seem sanguine about the potential of a gay player. Or, at least, most players are media-savvy enough to know that anti-gay opinions are now as out of vogue as former baseball player John Rocker‘s racist remarks were in 1999. Ayanbadejo made news when Frank Bruni reported that the linebacker had sought, in an email to Ellner,  “to harness this Super Bowl media” on behalf of marriage equality or anti-bullying issues.  Though he used the Super Bowl media day to indicate he wants to focus on his game and not his advocacy, the mere fact it’s out there has changed the discourse.  (As for what he’d do after potentially winning? He told Bruni that he hoped to go to “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” to dance with the talk-show host. No Disneyland for this guy!)

Zeigler noted that it was impossible to forecast when any of the professional leagues would have their first gay athlete: “It just depends on one person — and the people who guarantee it’ll be in the next three years, they don’t know.” But he noted that the climate had changed, as much as in corporate America, in the military, and in politics — that it simply isn’t a big deal. Ayanbadejo’s ability to come out in favor of gay marriage and equality then declare he wants to focus on the big game seems less like walking a statement back than acknowledging how it really isn’t a big deal. As Athlete Ally’s Taylor, a straight former college wrestler now coaching at Columbia, put it: “I used to have a Human Rights Campaign sticker on the side of my helmet — and my teammates supported me, but they told me sports was just about sports.”

Which at once fits how big an issue gay marriage and equality is, and how widespread acceptance of gay people has become. When it comes to the rare public homophobe like Culliver, said Zeigler, “if someone came out on his team tomorrow, everything would be just fine.”

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>