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Saturday, September 08, 2012

Activist athletes, tone-deaf politicians

Now here's a fun free-speech controversy.

On Thursday, the story got out that Emmett C. Burns, Jr., a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, had sent a letter to the principal owner of the Baltimore Ravens, expressing horror that a member of the Ravens, Brendan Ayanbadejo, had spoken in support of a pending ballot initiative that would establish marriage equality in Maryland. Burns asked the team to "take the necessary action . . . to inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions." Ayanbadejo responded on Twitter by saying "Football is just my job it's not who I am. I am an American before anything. And just like every American I have the right to speak!!!" (wow, maybe you can make good points in 140 characters). Vikings punter Chris Kluwe defended Ayanbadejo on Deadspin and has been getting some attention for his response, which mostly hits (in an inimitable style) the key points.

Burns obviously should not be taken seriously or given too much credit for having put any real thought or principle into the letter.  What I find disturbing is the stated belief that, as a football player, Ayanbadejo has less of a right to speak out on public issues--that it is wrong for him to "try to sway public opinion one way or another" simply because he is a professional athlete. I haven't heard of Burns sending letters to other employers in the state (such as Johns Hopkins University, the largest employer in Maryland) asking them to tell their employees to concentrate on their jobs. Modern athletes are frequently criticized for not being political and not taking a stand on public issues (recall Michael Jordan's infamous comment that "Republicans buy shoes, too"). Now, when an athlete is willing to take a stand, a public official insists that he is engaging in "injurious behavior" and should be silenced.

We have not heard any response from Burns since the story became public and my guess is we won't. As an unknown and not influential state legislator, he no doubt is basking in the attention, even if it all makes him look like a complete fool.

Update: The New York Times has a short piece on the controversy, mentioning a number of current and former players who have come out in support of marriage equality and arguing that it reflects a shift in the NFL's political culture.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 8, 2012 at 08:21 AM in Current Affairs, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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Kluwe later published a blog post explaining why he wrote with so much profanity. The post also includes an alternative version of the letter, with the profanity replaced by phrases like "DISAPPOINTED LEMUR FACE WITH SOLITARY TEAR TRICKLING DOWN TO CHIN." Very funny.


Posted by: Sam | Sep 8, 2012 3:38:28 PM

Kluwe's letter is the best thing I've seen on the internets in a long time.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Sep 8, 2012 1:59:30 PM

This is one of those times I wish prawfs had a "like" button. I don't really have anything to add in the comment except that I like the post and loved Kluwe's letter.

Posted by: Anon childless | Sep 8, 2012 12:41:36 PM

Well, what I find disturbing is that Burns is a hateful bigot who objectifies people who do sports for a living, but yeah, I see your point, Howard. :)

Posted by: Hadar Aviram | Sep 8, 2012 8:38:14 AM

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