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That’s why he thought it important to come out in support of gay marriage in Maryland, an issue that put him at odds with a vocal state lawmaker who opposed the measure. The amendment was passed by the voters in November, and Ayanbadejo was pleasantly surprised that a number of players _ even from other teams _ gave him a pat on his back.

Of course, there were others who didn’t agree _ many of them in his own locker room. Safety Bernard Pollard is among those who doesn’t support gay marriage, though he insisted it doesn’t affect his relationship with Ayanbadejo.

“Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion,” Pollard said. “Ayanbadejo has taken a position to back everything that’s going on there (in Maryland). There’s a lot of guys that disagree.

“But, you know, we can all disagree, and be perfectly fine. He knows I don’t back what he’s doing. I don’t stand for it. But at the same time, that doesn’t take away from us being teammates. I still respect him as a man. I’m never going to demean him. He’s never going to demean me. He’s got his thing, and I’ve got mine.”

Ayanbadejo was asked what kind of player _ and person _ it would take to be the first openly gay athlete in the NFL. He said it would have to be someone along the lines of Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball and, coincidentally, would have been 94 on Thursday.

“If you’re an amazing player, acceptance is going to come a lot easier,” the Ravens linebacker said. “People would be like, `Man, I didn’t know gay people were such amazing athletes.’ Uh, yeah, it’s not that farfetched. But some people think like that.”

San Francisco safety Donte Whitner, another strong supporter of gay rights, said a number of factors would have to be lined up perfectly before a gay player could make the call to come out.

“It depends on what team he’s on, what market he’s in and the character of the guys in the locker room,” he said. “The character of the guys in the locker room is important. You can feel a lot more comfortable about coming out if there’s guys in there to back you up.”

Interestingly enough, considering it was a teammate who stirred up the issue during Super Bowl week, Whitner said the 49ers would probably be one of the most accepting squads.

“I believe there would be no issues with our team,” he said. “I believe San Francisco would probably be the best city to do it in.”

Niners CEO Jed York said he needs to become a leader on the issue of gay rights. After the Super Bowl, he intends to set up a meeting between Culliver and members of the LGBT community in the Bay area.

“I can’t force anybody to think or to act the way that I want them to,” York said. “But what I can do is give them the opportunity to experience other cultures, other communities.”

While Ayanbadejo praised the efforts of NFL executives like York, as well as the backing he received from his own team on the gay-marriage issue, the first player to come out will surely face plenty of obstacles.

“I think it would be tough,” 49ers receiver Randy Moss said. “That person would get ridiculed and just beat up verbally. I don’t know if they’d be able to handle it.”

But Moss said it’s time _ past time, really _ for everyone in the NFL to acknowledge that gay players have always been part of the league. And, he added, to realize they’re not going to hide their true feelings forever.

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