I’m going to start this post by taking an unpopular stance, but I’m going to side with Mr Emmet C. Burns Jr. for a hot second. I’m going to say that he may be right – that politics and football do not belong together. In fact, one could argue that politics and sports in general should never be in the same place at the same time. The people that make this argument, however, overlook the fact that even though sports and politics often operate in extremely different theatres, they share a commonality that cannot be ignored – the public eye (see, I told you that wouldn’t last long).
Politics and sports, in this instance football, became violently intertwined this week when Mr Emmet C. Burns Jr., a Democrat from the Maryland General Assembly, wrote a letter to the owner of the Baltimore Ravens about the actions of one of the team’s linebackers – Brendan Ayanbadejo. Burns’s letter was in response to Ayanbadejo donating a pair of Ravens tickets to a fundraiser for Marylanders for Marriage Equality as well as voicing his opinion for marriage equality. For those unaware, Maryland recently passed legislation to allow same-sex marriages, but the issue is going before voters in the November election. Burns’s letter to the Ravens owner did not go unnoticed however, as Chris Kluwe, a punter for the Minnesota Vikings, wrote a scathing rebuttal to Burns, indirectly defending the actions of Ayanbadejo but more adequately championing civil rights.
There are plenty of things to be said here. Yes, Kluwe’s words were not elegant or eloquent. Crass might be another term to describe his response. One may question whether the intent was to insult a politician or to actually champion what may be unpopular political opinion. But that hardly matters, because while you could make this an issue over marriage equality, it is so much more than that. Certainly Mr Burns felt that given the political climate in the state, a sports celebrity championing a cause that he is opposed to would be detrimental. But as much as this is an issue surrounding same sex marriage, it’s an even bigger issue surrounding civil rights and the right to freedom of speech.
Just so we are clear and to bring everyone up to speed, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
People often point to the First Amendment as justification for any and all free speech, and truly this is how the amendment has come to be known among the general public. The amendment though clearly states that Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of speech. In Burns’s defense, he is neither Congress nor is he making a law.
This point hardly matters though. For any lawmaker, no matter how high in our nation’s political system he or she happens to sit, to tell anyone that an employee of a private company should cease and desist from making known their personal opinions on a matter is absolutely absurd. Granted Ayanbadejo is championing a controversial political issue, but would Burns have said anything if Ayanbadejo had instead been championing anti-abortion or anti-same sex marriage views? If the issue of marriage equality wasn’t on the ballot in the November elections in Maryland, would Burns have bothered? What Mr Burns forgets is that political speech – even if not truthful – is always protected speech. Mr Burns seems to think that sports celebrities should be seen and not heard, but he has no right to tell a private citizen on what he or she can voice opinions. Mr Burns also forgets that an individual’s right to freedom of speech is not dependent on their profession. Taken one step further, for any one individual to say that another should not be able to voice their political opinion seems to violate civil rights. Political speech is not protected because it is popular; only unpopular speech requires protection.
The timing of Burns’s letter is also suspect. As has been pointed out in several media outlets, Ayanbadejo has voiced his support for marriage equality well before this year, including an article for The Huffington Post in 2009 and a PSA for Marylanders for Marriage Equality in 2011. Furthermore, Mr Burns needs to hire some staffers to do some fact checking, as Ayanbadejo is not the only NFL player to support same-sex marriage. In fact, the entire team of the San Francisco 49ers participated in the “It Gets Better campaign” this year, and their sister baseball team the Giants participated in 2011 along with the Baltimore Orioles. Furthermore, as Kluwe pointed out in his response to Burns, it was activist coaches and players that ended racial discrimination in the NFL. So it would seem that football and politics have a long history together…
You can read Emmet C Burns Jr. letter here
You can read Chris Kluwe’s letter here