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Former NFL Star And Activist Calls League's Shift On Protests 'Just A Moral Victory'

Brendon Ayanbadejo, an activist and former NFL player, drew criticism for voicing his support for same-sex marriage. He calls the league's recent shift on players who protest "just a moral victory."
Kris Connor
Getty Images
Brendon Ayanbadejo, an activist and former NFL player, drew criticism for voicing his support for same-sex marriage. He calls the league's recent shift on players who protest "just a moral victory."

Weeks of nationwide protests over police abuse prompted the National Football League earlier this month to condemn racism and shift its stance against players protesting racial injustice.

But Brendon Ayanbadejo, a former NFL linebacker and equal rights activist, is reserving praise for the announcement made by league commissioner Roger Goodell.

"For now, it's just a moral victory," Ayanbadejo told All Things Considered. "[I] would've loved to have people listen sooner, before there was a lot more violence, before there was a lot more lives lost," Ayanbadejo says.

Owners and coaches have largely remained silent on the issue, Ayanbadejo says, and many actions still need to be taken to align with the commissioner's statement. He says he'd like to hear Goodell's message echoed more clearly among the league's other executives.

"From a corporate responsibility standpoint, from a team ownership standpoint ... what types of statements are they going to make?" says Ayanbadejo. "You see some coaches speaking up and standing up but I'd like to see it from the top down."

In his remarks earlier this month, Goodell said that, "We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter."

While Goodell's remarks were welcomed across much of the league, the commissioner also drew criticism for failing to mention former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Starting in 2016, Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem, inspiring a peaceful protest movement among players that drew the ire of President Trump and others.

Like many players, Ayanbadejo is no stranger to receiving backlash for speaking out. As a member of the Baltimore Ravens until the 2012 season, the three-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion has been criticized for his outspoken support for LGBTQ rights and inclusion.

After Ayanbadejo voiced support for same-sex marriage in 2012, then-Maryland state delegate Emmett Burns sent a letter to Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti, saying that Ayanbadejo should "concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fan base," and urged Bisciotti to keep his players from speaking on the issue.

Ayanbadejo refused then, and now, to stay silent.

Still, at the time, he worried that airing his views threatened his employment with the league.

"I thought my job was in question, and then people would question my sexuality as well, they question your humanity," he says.

Unlike Kaepernick, however, who has yet to be re-signed by an NFL team, Ayanbadejo says exercising his free speech did not ultimately harm his NFL career.

"There was some nerve-wracking time until the president of the Ravens reached out to me or until the LGBTQ community put their arms around me and pulled me in and held me up," he says. "It's definitely challenging when you don't have all the support to help you stand up tall."

Ayanbadejo himself doesn't identify as gay, but feels it's his duty to speak out about an issue that aligns with his "moral compass."

Despite the varying degrees of backlash that's followed athletes who protest against police abuse or stand up for LGBTQ rights, Ayanbadejo doesn't divorce the two issues from an overarching fight for equality.

While he is heartened by people who are "starting to listen" and the conversations being sparked around racial inequality, Ayanbadejo says there's a lot more work to do.

"Systemic racism is so much more than just the police — it's access to education and food, health care. It's beyond more than just the violence that you see, it's all the passive racism that's in the system as well," he says.

As a black man with a daughter and son, Ayanbadejo says his fame does not immunize him from the consequences of racism.

"Why would you listen to a guy that's in the NFL? You make a million dollars, you're living your dream life ... But you still have to walk around with your black square on."

NPR's Robert Baldwin III and Natalie Winston produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.