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Athletes, crusaders for change

1/14/2013

[The "Athletes and Activism" feature produced by Justine Gubar will air as part of ESPN's MLK Special "Content of Character," (Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2).]

Brendon Ayanbadejo checks in on Facebook from the supermarket, an unremarkable act for a remarkable man. He's a veteran NFL player and a heterosexual who has become a crusader for legalizing same-sex marriage. Once you get to know him, you realize that activism is in his blood.

"I have a really open and wide view," Ayanbadejo told us when we spent an afternoon at his modest home in the suburbs of Baltimore. "I know what it's like to be on welfare and I know what it's like to cash a million-dollar check." The gay-rights warrior is half Nigerian and half Irish-American. Growing up, he says, "I never kind of fit in," not with the white kids, not with the Nigerian kids, not with the African-American kids.

While attending UCLA from 1996 to '98, he realized he was following in the footsteps of some of the most inspirational activists athletes. People like Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Arthur Ashe. "It's encoded in the UCLA DNA that you learn about these people," Ayanbadejo said.

The Ravens linebacker never said no to anything I asked him to do for this article. Playoff game in two days? Didn't matter. He was sending me photos as soon I texted my request.

As the producer of the piece, I have to line up the interviews and pull together all the different visual elements. After we decided to make Ayanbadejo the focal point, we thought about who else we were going to include. Dr. Harry Edwards and former NFL great Jim Brown were people we were interested in because of their unique roles in history along with their reputations for candor. Both Edwards and Brown live in California, as do I, so Michael Smith stayed home for those interviews and I conducted them. After all, that's a long way to travel when you are hosting a daily show.

I wish we could have devoted more time in our story to the work of recently retired NBA player Etan Thomas, but it's easy to wind up with an excess of good material and, inevitably, some things have to be cut down. The interview with Thomas took place at the Boys & Girls Club in Harlem. Although born in New York, he was raised in Tulsa, Okla., by a single mother who worked as a schoolteacher. Thomas credits her with fostering his commitment to social justice. He grew up heavily involved in speech and debate, and even spoke at an NAACP conference while in high school.

I first met him in Harlem at a panel he had organized at the Abyssinian Baptist Church where athletes, poets and musicians came together to talk about the importance of being a responsible parent. Thomas, who is a member of President Obama's Fatherhood Initiative, recently wrote a book on the subject.

In a room adjacent to the main sanctuary of the church, before the panel started, the 6-foot-10 former center stood -- hunched over to avoid hitting his head on the low ceiling -- with some of the other panelists: former New York Knicks guard Allan Houston, retired NFL player David Tyree and National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter. Two hours later, when the moderator tried to wrap things up and end the Q-and-A, Thomas patiently continued to take all the questions he could. He wasn't about to miss an opportunity to inspire.

"It's important to always stand up for what you believe in and to, to hold strong to your convictions," Thomas said. "You're gonna get different forces that want you to, to pull you in different directions and want you to do something else." This is a message he tries to instill in young people.