NEW ORLEANS — If the NFL has an unofficial gay rights advocate, it is Brendan Ayanbadejo. The Baltimore Ravens special-teams ace has campaigned vocally for universal gay marriage, unbowed by the reams of hate mail he receives.
This week, Ayanbadejo's message has been drowned out by a two-minute sound bite from 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, who demeaned gays in a radio interview and suggested he would not tolerate a homosexual teammate.
Ayanbadejo, who grew up in Santa Cruz, knows that a slip like Culliver's can be even more valuable than his own persistent advocacy.
"If people hear you say those things, regardless of whether you mean them or not, they're going to fry you for it in a public arena," Ayanbadejo said Thursday during the Ravens' media session as his team prepared to face the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday.
"Culliver apologized, and hopefully he'll learn. I guarantee that his comments will be a positive thing, because it sheds so much light on him and on guys who think like him. Because a lot of guys do think like him."
A day after Culliver's interview with shock-jock Artie Lange made headlines, the sports world responded. The 49ers distanced themselves from his views; former champions weighed in on the effect of Super Bowl week distractions and teammates alternately scolded and supported Culliver — sometimes in the same sentence.
"Our PR guys' job is to help us, to be with us throughout the season," defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said. "They try to make sure you got the training wheels on your bike. When you come to this (stage), they got to take 'em off. ... No matter how crazy this is, how many reporters in your face, you gotta take everything they taught you in right now."
Or as linebacker Ahmad Brooks put it: "Damn, fella, think before you talk a little bit."
Forty Niners CEO Jed York took a wider view. As the primary face of the team, York is responsible for maintaining relationships with corporate partners, educational organizations and charitable foundations. He knows that in the Bay Area, a reputation for homophobia will quickly put you on the sidelines.
"It's a combination of embarrassing — but more frustrating — because you have a young guy that hasn't been exposed to the greater LGBT community," York said.
"It wasn't something he grew up with. I can relate. I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio," a city he describes as "not the beacon of the LGBT community."
"So when you come to San Francisco there's a sense of what San Francisco is, and there's the reality. And when you get there and you understand the reality and you understand the LGBT community — they're like anybody else."
None of Culliver's teammates publicly defended the opinions he expressed, but they suggested he deserved their support and forgiveness. Many pointed to his age and inexperience. Culliver, 24, is in his second NFL season.
"I do believe that there wasn't malice in his heart; he's not that kind of person," head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "He's not an ugly person. He's not a discriminating person. ... I think it took this incident to hear those words being said back home and to see them written down on paper for him to realize that they were hurtful and ugly."