Another sign of the culture's rapidly changing views on the issue of same-sex marriage came Tuesday with a push for gay marriage in Florida — from Brendon Ayanbadejo, a former Miami Dolphin who was a linebacker for the 2013 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
Cut by the Ravens, and unsure whether he'll have a continuing NFL career at age 36, the Fort Lauderdale resident said his activism on behalf of marriage equality for gays and lesbians is a "bigger calling" than football.
"Equality will always be more important than sports," he said at a news conference arranged by the gay rights group Equality Florida. "This is a very important issue right now. And we have to strike while it's hot. And I'm going to do as much as I can."
Ayanbadejo's push comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the issue of same-sex marriage, with a ruling expected by summer, and as polling shows Floridians' views have shifted rapidly on the subject. In 2008, an amendment banning same-sex marriage was added to the state Constitution passed with 62 percent of the vote. Polling in recent months shows, depending on the way the question is worded, 43 percent to 54 percent of Floridians support same-sex marriage.
Ayanbadejo said he benefited from people who championed civil rights even when it wasn't a popular cause.
"Somebody stepped up for me to allow me to have all the rights that I have today," said Ayanbadejo, who is black. With slavery, segregation and prohibitions against interracial marriage, America "has gotten it wrong, and eventually we got it right. We're here to try to make America get it right and make the Constitution live up to everything it promises."
The support of an athlete like Ayanbadejo, who is not gay, can make same-sex marriage more acceptable for many skeptics, said Rand Hoch, founder and president of the gay rights group Palm Beach County Human Rights Council.
"For people who have a following to come forward to say this is what I believe, this is why I believe it, it makes a huge difference," Hoch said.
As public attitudes have shifted, political leaders who follow public opinion are changing their positions. Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., reversed his oft-repeated belief that marriage should be reserved for male-female couples and became the 49th Democratic senator to support same-sex marriage. Just three are now opposed.
Even the Broward Democratic Party got involved, unanimously passing a resolution in support of same-sex marriage last week.
Two weeks ago, Tamarac Mayor Beth Talabisco became the 20th in South Florida to sign on with "Mayors for the Freedom to Marry." Another supporter is Pembroke Park Mayor Ashira Mohammed.
In March 2012, just five mayors in Broward and Palm Beach counties were supporters.
Both mayors represent cities with large population blocs of voters that polling shows are the least supportive of same-sex marriage. In Talabisco's city, 28 percent of the population is 65 or older, compared with 17 percent statewide. And 55 percent of Pembroke Park's population is black, compared with Florida's 16 percent.
Neither Talabisco nor Mohammed has received any negative feedback.
"I think more people are becoming more enlightened," Talabisco said. "In a world that's so topsy-turvy, if at the end of the day two people find solace and comfort in each other, well then it's a good thing."
Mohammed said she thinks seniors and the African-American community are becoming more supportive of same-sex marriage. "It's definitely changing. Everyone's more accepting," she said. "It's very important for everyone to have the same rights afforded to them. It wasn't so long ago that blacks and whites couldn't marry."
Though there have been a few Palm Beach County mayors supporting the freedom to marry effort, Hoch said activists have been concentrating on other issues and haven't made the same kind of push that's prompted half of Broward's mayors to pledge their support.
Though he's not a political leader who can change laws, someone like Ayanbadejo can change attitudes, said Fred Fejes, a professor of communications and multimedia studies at Florida Atlantic University. He's the author of "Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The Origins of America's Debate on Homosexuality," which deals with the rise of Anita Bryant's 1970s fight against gays in Miami-Dade County and the aftermath.
Ayanbadejo said that's a big reason he'll be focusing on gay rights issues during the next few weeks, when he'll be writing for Fox Sports. "I'm trying to hit as many different demographics and as many different people as I can, especially people that aren't allies, people that are in a different segment of society. That's why it was so important for me to work with Fox Sports, where I get to hit a lot of people who don't get the message," he said.
Ayanbadejo, 36, has been increasingly outspoken on the issue since 2009, and gained lots of positive and negative attention as he campaigned in favor of marriage equality in the Ravens' state of Maryland.
He said the team never objected, and his outspokenness had nothing to do with his release from the team earlier this year. He isn't sure whether he'll be playing in 2013.
Ayanbadejo, who played for the Dolphins in 2003 and 2004, attributed the Ravens decision to economics. He said he was paid $1 million a year and a 21- or 22-year-old could do the same thing for $300,000 or $400,000 a year. "If you're an employer, are you going to pay someone an extra 600 grand to do the same thing? Probably not."
Rodney White, of Hollywood, owner of a project management company and a member of the Equality Florida board, said the media scrum around Ayanbadejo will further the momentum for same-sex marriage.
"It's not just my community's issue any more," White said. "It's an American citizens' issue."
Video and exclusive Q&A with Brendon Ayanbadejo at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
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Local mayors who support same-sex marriage:
Peter Bober, Hollywood.
Joy Cooper, Hallandale Beach.
Pam Donovan, Margate .*
Debby Eisinger, Cooper City.*
Marilyn Gerber, Coconut Creek*
Kristin Jacobs, Broward County.
Richard Kaplan, Lauderhill.
David Levy, Palm Beach Gardens.*
Ashira Mohammed, Pembroke Park.
Lori Moseley, Miramar.
Jeri Muoio, West Palm Beach.
Frank Ortis, Pembroke Pines.
Judy Paul, Davie.
Gary Resnick, Wilton Manors.
Mike Ryan, Sunrise.
Anne Sallee, Oakland Park. *
J.P. Sasser, Pahokee. *
Beth Talabisco, Tamarac.
Pam Triolo, Lake Worth.
Michael Udine, Parkland.
Those marked with an asterisk (*) no longer carry the title mayor. One was defeated, while others left office because of term limits, a retirement, or rotated to commissioner roles late in 2012 or early this year.
Source: Mayors for the Freedom to Marry.