Over the past month, the NFL has found itself at the center of the gay marriage debate. Players have been using social media, blogs and newspaper to voice voicing their endorsement for marriage equality (or, in one notable instance, to oppose it). Just within the last week, even more prominent figures of American pro football have been taking a stand that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable.
Most recently, a former NFL player, Matt Willig, told Out Sports that he supports gay rights and that he believes that he played with at least one gay player during his 20-year football career.
"I would have relished the opportunity to stand up alongside a player who came out while he was playing and say it doesn’t change a thing about how I feel about this guy," he told the website.
Willig, who played for the St. Louis Rams and won the Super Bowl in 1999, has participated in the NOH8 campaign -- despite, he adds, his Roman Catholic upbringing. "When you grow up in a Catholic upbringing, and the conservativeness of that, and I’m still a practicing Catholic, I struggled with how the Church stood on that," Willig told Outsports. "I also see the complete hypocrisy that goes on with the Church, and their stance on gays, and the things that go on with the Church. That was the struggle I dealt with."
The former athlete, who is now an actor, has noticed a marked shift in players’ attitudes toward all things gay. He doesn’t think current players would have a problem with an out football player.
"If tomorrow 20 of the top 30 athletes in the NFL came out and said they were gay, I don’t think it would matter a bit to the guys looking to win those rings," he told Outsports.
In another development, Paul Tagliabue, a former NFL commissioner, announced this week that he and his wife have donated $100,000 to Maryland’s same-sex marriage campaign, the the Baltimore Sun reported.
"We had the privilege of raising our family in Maryland," Tagliabue said. "We have the privilege of now living in the District of Columbia. We’ve lived in New York, where they passed marriage equality. We spend time in the summer in Maine, where they are fighting it again. I think this is the time to view this not as an expense, but as a capital investment in our nation’s infrastructure."
The couple made the donation during a fundraiser attended by the state’s governor, Martin O’Malley and Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray, the Washington Blade reported. According to a poll by the Sun, 49 percent of Maryland’s voters say they support the state’s gay marriage law and 39 percent are against it.
The very public shift in the hyper-macho sport began most recently when the Baltimore Raven’s center, Brendon Ayanbadejo, publicly supported gay marriage. A Maryland state legislator took the football player to task for his statement. As EDGE reported, the politician faced a barrage of criticism and backtracked.
Several people and organizations came to Ayanbadejo’s defense. But the most notable -- and articulate -- defense came from a member of another NFL team. Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe wrote an impassioned piece that quickly went viral excoriating the Maryland politician.
Ayanbadejo’s own teammate Matt Birk (also a center), wrote an op-ed piece for Minnesota’s Star Tribune in which he voiced the anti marriage-equality side. Birk, now a Raven, has been drafted by the Vikings, so the piece put him at odds with his soon-to-be teammate Chris Kluwe. As reported here, Kluwe wrote another well-regarded piece taking apart Birk’s arguments.
All of this extra-football controversy will not have an effect on performance, according to Ayanbadejo, who told the Baltimore Sun that he supports Birk’s right to believe in traditional marriage.
"I don’t think he’s homophobic," Ayanbadejo wrote on his Twitter. "Matt Birk is an amazing father, teammate, man! Even if he & I disagree on marriage equality we agree on 95% of other issues."
From our media partners: EDGE