The biopic “42” — the history-making career of Jackie Robinson — is set for release in April, to coincide with the start of the baseball season and the anniversary of Robinson’s jarring introduction to the major leagues as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Largely forgotten is that the NFL’s colour barrier came down a year earlier, in 1946, when Kenny Washington and UCLA teammate Woody Strode broke in with the Los Angeles Rams.
By rights, the NFL should be celebrating its history of diversity, enlightenment and acceptance this week in New Orleans during Super Bowl week — except that the exclusion narrative still exists, says Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens.
Ordinarily, a reserve linebacker and special teams star wouldn’t command a large platform on the Tuesday of Super Bowl week, the traditional media day, although the 36-year-old Ayanbadejo has been named to the Pro Bowl three times and is considered one of the most valuable players at his craft in the NFL.
But the former Winnipeg Blue Bomber, Toronto Argonaut and B.C. Lion — a player who used the Canadian Football League as a launching pad to an NFL career — is in the spotlight for his hard-hitting approach of a different sort: his eyebrow-raising views as a champion of gay rights and same-sex marriage.
“I do welcome that attention, because I love bringing attention to the cause,” Ayanbadejo told The Vancouver Sun just before the AFC champion Ravens arrived in New Orleans Monday to begin Super Bowl preparations. “I love being a catalyst for change. I definitely see this as an important civil rights issue. If I have a spotlight on media day, I’m definitely going to use it.”
Maryland was one of three states — Washington and Maine were the others — to vote for marriage equality in the November U.S. elections. Ayanbadejo, in the company of governor Martin O’Malley, was an outspoken advocate in support of the initiative. He was attacked from many sides, however. A state legislator even suggested he should be fired by Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti because of his views, but Ayanbadejo vowed he would work even harder to get similar legislation passed in every state.
Now in his 10th NFL season with his third team, Ayanbadejo was both a CFL and West Division all-star in 2002, his only season with the Lions before leaving for the NFL. Back then, he talked of returning to Vancouver when his football career was done to live and study law at the University of B.C.
He’s going in a different direction now, taking courses at George Washington University in the MBA program, but he does see politics in his future.
“I think about getting into politics, definitely,” Ayanbadejo said. “Anything that helps our society progress and evolve, I’m all for that.”
Americans may think of themselves as a society forever improving and growing toward the equality set out in its constitution, though bigotry, religious fundamentalism, tribalism and deeply entrenched conservative values act as a blocking sled, a drag on the sweep of history.
Four years ago, when he became one of the first American pro athletes to speak out in support of same-sex marriage, some of his Ravens’ teammates made crude remarks about Ayanbadejo’s sexuality (he is a father of two) and slurs were directed at him on Internet message boards.
The snubs have just emboldened him to chip away at the bricks of the football establishment.
The biracial offspring of a Nigerian father and an Irish-American mother, his views on diversity were shaped at birth. In his formative years, Ayanbadejo lived on the campus of the University of California-Santa Cruz, where his stepfather took a job as the director of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transsexual supportive residence. Thus, a high standard for tolerance and acceptance was established early.
Later, as a standout linebacker at UCLA, Ayanbadejo was all Pac-10 and a Butkus Award candidate. Off the field, he was drawn to social causes — and, by all accounts, was a socially responsible young man, except for one glaring instance of brain lock. In 1999, Ayanbadejo was among 15 Bruins who pleaded no contest to a charge of possessing illegal disabled parking cards, to skirt the $132 per semester parking fee on the crowded Westwood campus. He was fined $1,485 and sentenced to 200 hours of community service.
Before he joined the Lions, in July 2002, Ayanbadejo had worked out for 10 NFL teams, but he failed to earn a roster spot. In his one season in Vancouver, however, he proved how myopic the NFL can be. He was All-CFL, the league leader in special teams tackles, and set a CFL playoff record with 14 tackles in a 30-3 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers that marked the end of the Adam Rita regime in B.C.
“Could he play (in the NFL)?” Rita said. “Why not? He’s better than some of the effing idiots down there. This guy can play.”
Rita was right about that. Ayanbadejo jumped to the Miami Dolphins, joining his brother, Obafemi, a running back, and never looked back.
“The CFL was like going to a junior college,” he said this week. “It gave me the confidence to believe in myself and to believe in my skills. I was able to become one of the best linebackers in the league. It helped me learn defences and the value of special teams play. And it was a springboard to the NFL, just like it’s been for Cameron Wake.”
The Ravens have been poring over film of Wake, a two-time CFL defensive player of the year with the Lions and now an All-Pro defensive end with the Dolphins, to glean some effective ways to contain 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose most dangerous trait is his running ability, when he’s not beating teams with his arm.
On Dec. 9, the 49ers defeated the Dolphins 27-13. Even so, the way Miami’s defence was able to contain and frustrate the 49ers for long chunks of the afternoon is encouraging for the Ravens, from a Super Bowl XLVII perspective. Wake was a terror, with six tackles and three sacks in the game.
“Our paths are definitely very similar,” Ayanbadejo said. “Cameron used his time in Canada to get where he is now and look what he’s doing. The CFL was definitely very important for his development as it was for mine. I still appreciate the opportunity it gave me and I loved Vancouver. Canadians seem like Americans, just a whole lot nicer. They’re definitely friendly people.”
While Super Bowl media day is usually full of pat answers and tired clichés to formulaic questions, Ayanbadejo holds out the promise of throwing a change-up to the monotony and predictability.
He probably will say something interesting, when afforded the media attention, but he says he’ll never forget why he’s in New Orleans.
“I’m in the twilight of my career,” he said. “After we win the championship, what more is there left to be done? I’m taking my career one day at a time now, and we’ll see where it goes. There might be a little more attention focused on me this week, even though it’s not about me — it’s about the cause. Human rights is a more important issue than football and will always be. But this week, it’s 1A. No. 1 is winning the Super Bowl, and that’s where my focus will be — to get that ring.”
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