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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."

Culliver spent an hour Thursday clarifying and apologizing for his comments. Whether he was as sincere as he sounded, the episode served to renew a debate that has occupied the sport for years: When, if ever, will an openly gay player be accepted in an NFL locker room?

Some said that, despite a few Chris Cullivers in the league, that time already has come.

"You're not here to judge nobody," Jean Francois said. "If you want to come out and say (you're gay), be my guest. It ain't gonna change my thoughts about you."

Still, no active NFL player has ever come out publicly. That includes offensive tackle Kwame Harris, who played six seasons with the 49ers (2003-07) and Raiders (2008), and did not acknowledge his sexual preference until he was accused of assaulting his boyfriend at a Menlo Park restaurant this week.

Niners safety Donte Whitner, who said he has gay relatives, supports a tolerant locker room. But he isn't convinced every NFL player is ready for it.

"Football is a rough game. It's a very rough game, so I guess when you think of football you don't really think of somebody being gay," Whitner said. "The facts are, there are some people in the NFL right now that are gay and scared to come out."

Whitner said there are many people in the NFL "who aren't comfortable with being in the locker room naked with guys walking around if somebody is gay."

Ayanbadejo, for one, is doing his part to make that mindset obsolete.

"I've preached since Day 1 that there are certain words you can't say," he said. "They know that when you're around me, you can't say 'gay' in a derogatory manner. You can't say the three-letter F-word.

"Is it a hard burden? No. It's doing what's right. I used to say those words. Then I learned those words hurt people."

Culliver has learned it, too. His lesson, in the glare of the Super Bowl spotlight, was a little more painful.