“Now is the time …”
— Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963
Brendon Ayanbadejo is wrong.
It is painful to say that. Ayanbadejo’s heart is in a good place and the advice he gave last week on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” was practical and well intentioned. But mainly, yes, it was wrong.
Here’s the back story. It seems NFL prospect Nick Kasa recently told ESPN Radio that he was asked in an interview with a team he won’t specify whether he is married, if he has a girlfriend and whether he likes girls. It was a spectacularly stupid line of inquiry for two reasons.
One: It has nothing to do with his abilities as a football player.
Two: It’s fresh evidence of the NFL’s estrangement from the 21st century, coming as it does in the wake of Chris Culliver of the San Francisco 49ers — repeat: the San Francisco 49ers — dismissing the notion of a gay player by saying, “Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah, can’t be in the locker room.”
Enter Ayanbadejo, a Baltimore Ravens linebacker and outspoken proponent of gay rights. What, he was asked, should a prospective player do if he is gay and some team asks if he likes girls? Ayanbadejo’s advice? Lie.
“I think players need to say that they’re straight right now,” he said. “You need to get drafted as high as you can get drafted, get the money while you can.”
“Maybe later,” he added, “once you establish yourself and when we break down some of these walls in the NFL, then players will be more comfortable to really be who they are.” Eventually, he said, perhaps football will see “our Jackie Robinson, our pioneer for gay rights and equality.”
But the thing is, Jackie Robinson did not come along after the walls had been broken down. He was the one swinging the sledgehammer. The idea that progress must wait for an opportune time, that a trailblazer should defer trailblazing till he makes some money, reflects a misunderstanding of what social change is and how it is made.
Truth is, the timing is never right in the view of those whose prerogatives and prejudices are challenged. Martin Luther King Jr. once said he’d never participated in a campaign that someone didn’t consider ill-timed.
So that closeted gay football star, that closeted basketball, hockey or baseball player still trying to prove he “likes girls,” ought to be guided less by the words of Brendon Ayanbadejo than by the words of an old children’s singsong:
“Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
That is, yes, a very easy thing to say if you’re not the one being asked to risk money, career, ostracism, family, maybe even physical intimidation. But if heroism were without risk, everybody would be a hero.
And that is exactly what the active player in one of the four major sports who comes out of the closet right now will be. He will debunk the bassackward “thinking” of the Chris Cullivers of the world and become a beacon for every high school quarterback, two guard and first baseman now living alone and scared in the prison of a secret sexuality. He might even save that child’s life.
In his first speech as leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, King said, “There comes a time when people get tired …” He could not speak again for 20 seconds. At that simple statement, his audience erupted, overwhelming him with shouts and cries releasing the pent-up frustration and swallowed-down rage of people who’d finally had their fill of the everyday indignities and petty humiliations of their lives.
What we are waiting on, then, is not some mythical moment when the timing is right for a gay athlete. Rather, what we are waiting on is an athlete who has gotten tired. Tired enough to take a risk, tired enough to be brave.
Because when people get that tired, change comes. And then the timing takes care of itself.