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Originally published Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 10:27 AM

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Pro sports more gay-friendly as athletes speak out

NFL punters are only seen on fourth down and heard from less than that. But with Minnesota voters weighing whether to ban gay marriage this fall, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe has emerged as a high-profile gay rights champion - and a symbol of changing attitudes toward homosexuality in the sports world.

Associated Press

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MINNEAPOLIS —

NFL punters are only seen on fourth down and heard from less than that. But with Minnesota voters weighing whether to ban gay marriage this fall, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe has emerged as a high-profile gay rights champion - and a symbol of changing attitudes toward homosexuality in the sports world.

"I'd like to win some votes against the amendment," Kluwe told The Associated Press. "It would permanently change the state constitution. Who are we to say we should decide what our children should do on this subject? If we're not the generation to make gay marriage legal, why should we prevent our children having a say on the matter?"

Kluwe, a colorful 30-year-old with political science and history degrees from UCLA, is known for his love of video games, for getting a perfect score on the verbal portion of the SAT test and for his liberal political views. He agreed some time ago to speak out against Minnesota's amendment and headlined a long-planned fundraiser against the amendment Friday night.

But Kluwe got a massive new audience for his views after he penned a blistering open letter to a Maryland state lawmaker who criticized another NFL player, Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens, for supporting gay marriage with the issue also on Maryland's ballot.

"Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different than you or act different than you?" Kluwe wrote to Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. The full letter, posted by the sports website Deadspin.com, was laced with profanity and sarcasm.

Burns had written to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, urging him to restrain Ayanbadejo from speaking publicly on the issue. Kluwe said it was the assault on free speech, not Burns' opposition to gay marriage, that angered him.

Burns did not return a phone call from The Associated Press. A Democrat and a Baptist pastor, he told the Baltimore Sun that "upon reflection" Ayanbadejo has the right to express his views.

In all, four states are voting on gay marriage this year. Minnesota's vote is on a constitutional ban; in Maryland, as well as Maine and Washington, voters are deciding whether gay marriage should be legal.

"I'm just going to continue to voice my First Amendment rights and continue to support the cause," Ayanbadejo said. "There's a lot of work to be done."

The incident evoked memories of a 1998 controversy involving the NFL and homosexuality, but with the roles reversed. Back then, All-Pro defensive end Reggie White of the Green Bay Packers made national news by criticizing homosexuality and gay activists, first in a speech to Wisconsin state lawmakers and later in a full-page advertisement in USA Today. White died in 2004.

Pro athletes and team officials say attitudes have slowly shifted in a sports culture often seen as one of the last bastions of acceptable homophobia.

"We call it casual homophobia," said Patrick Burke, a scout for the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers and founder of the You Can Play Project, which aims to increase acceptance for gay athletes. "Athletes will use slurs like `that's so gay' or `don't be a fag' without thinking about what they're really saying. You might think it's harmless, but for that young athlete in the corner who's closeted, it's a huge deal."

No active athlete in the four most popular pro sports - football, baseball, basketball or hockey - has come out publicly as gay, according to the gay-oriented sports website Outsports.com.

"I've always called it the last closet in American society," said Jim Buzinski, the site's co-founder. "The fact that no player has ever come out while active, it shows you how entrenched that culture is."

Some players have after retiring. Esera Tuaolo, a retired NFL tackle who played for the Vikings from 1992 to 1996, came out in 2002, explaining he stayed quiet for years when he heard homophobic slurs or taunting in the locker room.

Minnesota Gophers basketball star Trevor Mbakwe joined Kluwe and Tuaolo at the Minneapolis fundraiser.

"To defeat the amendment, we need to aim our message at the independent and moderate, maybe Republican-leaning voters that just haven't thought much about this issue," said Tracy Call, an ad exec for Minnesotans for Equality, which organized the event.

Several sports figures say they were influenced by gay family members. Kluwe has a gay brother-in-law, "and I'd like to see him be able to get married someday," he said.

Connor Barwin, a linebacker for the Houston Texans, has talked about his gay brother and his own support for equal marriage rights. Burke, the NHL scout, had a gay brother who also worked in hockey management but died in a 2010 car accident.

NFL leadership has supported players' right to speak out. League spokesman Greg Aiello said a statement issued a decade ago still holds: "As an institution, the NFL is a meritocracy that also places a high priority on tolerance and diversity ... on that basis an individual's sexual orientation is entirely irrelevant."

In Baltimore, Ravens center Matt Birk said he thought the NFL was evolving toward greater acceptance of homosexuality. He declined to talk about his own feelings on gay marriage, but spoke out strongly in support of other players' freedom to take stands. And he said he was "absolutely" willing to play with a gay teammate.

Some of Kluwe's teammates were more reluctant to talk about it.

"I've just been mainly focusing on getting snaps to him. So I've stayed away from his media blitz," said Cullen Loeffler, the Vikings long snapper who spends as much time with Kluwe as anyone on the team.

But Kluwe said the private response from Vikings players and management has been positive.

"For me personally, what I'm seeing is guys who are willing to live and let live," Kluwe said. "They don't really care about it, and at the end of the day when we're in the locker room, it's what can you do to help us win on Sunday?"

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Associated Press reporter Dave Campbell and AP freelancer Jason Butt in Baltimore contributed to this report.

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