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.”

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 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • 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>