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A Raven stands up for equality — and free speech

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It's been a tough week for Maryland politicians who misspeak badly and then have to correct themselves. First, there was Gov. Martin O'Malley and his lame excuses for his "no" to the "are you better off than four years ago" question while defending President Barack Obama on national television, and then Rep. Roscoe Bartlett invoked the Holocaust in explaining the federal student loan program's allegedly unconstitutionality, a truly outrageous comparison for which he eventually apologized.

But the capper goes to Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., the Baltimore County Democrat, who on Sunday finally decided that his efforts to pressure the owner of the Baltimore Ravens to silence linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo for expressing views on marriage equality that run counter to the delegate's own were beyond the pale.

"Upon reflection," the delegate told The Sun's Annie Linskey, "he has his First Amendment rights."

In politics, this is known as "walking back" a political position, but in football, it's closer to a player walking off the field in submission after realizing just how hard he was about to get hit. That Mr. Burns had to reacquaint himself with the First Amendment in the days after writing to Steve Bisciotti and asking him to "take the necessary action" required to cause his player to "cease and desist" the player's advocacy of same-sex marriage suggests he has neither the temperament nor the basic understanding of government and law to continue in office. The fact that the use of his office letterhead for the purpose may have violated General Assembly ethics rules only underscores the point.

Kudos to Mr. Bisciotti, who backed his player and has acted honorably from the moment he received what could easily have been taken as an effort to intimidate. Ravens management could have asked their players to avoid politics, period. They might have worried that a state legislator had the power to affect their dealings with the Maryland Stadium Authority, from which they lease M&T Bank Stadium. But they did none of the above.

Mr. Ayanbadejo's support for same-sex marriage is notable not simply because Maryland voters will soon have a chance to weigh in on the issue but because the insular and macho world of professional sports is one of the last places in America where openly discussing sexual orientation is taboo. A high-profile cable news anchor can announce he is gay, and it hardly gets a second thought, but pro athletes (with some exceptions) are reluctant to discuss their views on the subject, let alone come out.

Although he is straight, Mr. Ayanbadejo has been a longtime supporter of gay rights, and he's already endorsed Maryland's same-sex marriage law in print and in an on-line video. Thanks to Mr. Burns' constitutionally questionable behavior, his views have now received considerable national attention, and the fracas has emboldened other NFL players to speak out in support of equality, too. That includes the rather scathing response from Minnesota Vikings' punter Chris Kluwe who chastised Delegate Burns "vitriolic hate and bigotry."

Make no mistake, Mr. Burns has a right to oppose same-sex marriage, although we believe it's fundamentally wrong to deny basic civil rights to families and their children on the basis of sexual orientation. But at least we can take the comfort in knowing that his efforts have helped mobilize support among NFL fans.

Ravens supporters have no doubt already taken notice of their linebacker whose support for the cause might be traced not to some desire for publicity but because he spent time in his mid-teens around an LGBT dorm at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where his step-father was the dorm's headmaster. He understands that denying legal rights to some people does not make a society better, it makes it worse. Fellow players who might have snickered at the thought of gay rights in another time are expressing their support.

TV host Ellen DeGeneres recently called Mr. Ayanbadejo and Mr. Kluwe "two of the most courageous people I know." But courage is common in the NFL. What distinguishes these players is that they selflessly recognize that there are things in life more important than what transpires on a football field, and standing up for human rights is one of them.

As for Mr. Burns, his constituents may want to ask him why former Orioles player Luke Scott's dubious "birther" views didn't inspire a similar attack two years ago. He would have been wrong to try to intimidate Orioles owner Peter Angelos, too, but at least the delegate would have been consistent in his attacks on pro athletes and against the First Amendment.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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