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It Gets Better at the Super Bowl

Sports, “the last closet,” are rapidly becoming less homophobic.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Arriving home early in the morning a couple of weeks ago, with his team heading to the Super Bowl after roundly defeating the Patriots, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo experienced an impassioned “Jerry Macquire” moment.

Reflecting on the media attention he would receive with his upcoming Super Bowl appearance, Ayanbadejo sent an email to “Brian Ellner, a leading marriage-equality advocate with whom he had worked before, and Michael Skolnik, the political director for Russell Simmons, a hip-hop mogul who has become involved in many issues, including same-sex marriage,” as Frank Bruni wrote for the New York Times.

“Is there anything I can do for marriage equality or anti-bullying over the next couple of weeks to harness this Super Bowl media?” Ayanbejo asked. By the time he hit send, it was close to four in the morning.

The Super Bowl is much more than just a game, more than an athletic contest between two teams on a football field. Over the years it has, for better or worse or both, become something of a national holiday, drawing a wide cross-section of viewers, earning record television ratings year after year, and featuring commercials with 30-second price tags worth millions of dollars.

In the week leading up to the actual event, an all-out media frenzy develops as seemingly every news outlet from Manitoba to Mars send reporters into the fray, eagerly awaiting stories of hoodied coaches, deer antler spray, or whatever becomes important to that particular year’s spectacle. In this way the Super Bowl is an indication of our nation’s pulse, our national dialogue. It often includes much of what makes sports in America both beautiful and ugly.

Which is why all the discussion concerning gay rights and marriage equality at this year’s Super Bowl was so significant, even if much of it was so disagreeable.

In the week leading up to the game, not only did Ayanbadejo speak out in favor of gay rights, but San Francisco cornerback Chris Culliver made disparaging remarks about the prospect of playing with a gay teammate. (To date, no male athlete in any of the four major American sports has ever come out while still playing.) His team was quick to issue a statement: “The San Francisco 49ers reject the comments that were made yesterday … We have and always will proudly support the LGBT community.”

Culliver later apologized for his comment. However, the discussion was only just beginning.

The 49ers made history last summer, becoming the first NFL team to film an “It Gets Better” anti-bullying video for gay rights activist Dan Savage’s organization of the same name.

But last week, following Culliver’s statement, nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and linebacker Ahmad Brooks, two of the 49ers who were featured in the notable video, said, amazingly enough, that they didn’t realize the spot was promoting gay rights. Savage took the video off his organization’s website.

No matter how encouraging or disheartening these events were, however, the amount of dialogue concerning gay rights at the Super Bowl is still significant, not only in the sports community but for the larger society as well.

“Everyone’s talking about it on ESPN,” recently retired NFL cornerback Wade Davis told the Bay Area’s NBC affiliate. “People are asking [players at the Super Bowl’s media day] about gay rights. That’s never happened before. That’s progress.”

A journeyman footballer who played for several teams, Davis came out last summer, following his retirement.

“The fact that we’re talking about gay rights before the Super Bowl, the largest stage in the sports world, is progress,” he continued.

Cyd Ziegler, Jr., founder of Outsports.com, agrees with Davis. “Sports is the last closet,” he suggests. “Nobody’s out, but sports aren’t necessarily this horrible homophobic institution anymore.”

Over the past few years, several athletes, from the NBA’s Steve Nash to the NHL’s Sean Avery to the NFL’s Scott Fujita, have voiced their support for gay rights. This is a reflection of recent political victories such as the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the passage of marriage equality legislation in four states this past November—solid indications that real social change is happening. Comments by Chris Culliver and a few of his 49ers teammates won’t change that.

Likewise, though, it’s clear from the Super Bowl week discourse that more progress must be made before it really gets better, in the sports arena and out.•

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