Sports Business Lunch: Ayanbadejo ready for Super Bowl spotlight, more on Lewis and Phelps

January 23, 2013|By Chris Korman

An occasional look at sports business stories from across the country ...

Brendon Ayanbadejo knows there is no better time to speak than in the lead up to the Super Bowl. Thousands of reporters from every sort of outlet will be in New Orleans to cover the spectacle, and a good number of them will look to seize on something beyond the battle of the brothers Harbaugh, or Ray Lewis' last stand.

How about gay marriage?

Ayanbadejo is a long-time and unabashed advocate for gay rights. That's an unusual thing for a pro athlete to be in the most normal of times. Football players often look askance at any player who pushes any controversial cause away from the field. And many of the men who populate the Ravens' locker room may feel much different about the issue than Ayanbadejo does. None other than Matt Birk, one of the most respected players in the league, has voiced the opposite stance.

But according to New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, Ayanbadejo will make a concerted push to spread his message over the next two weeks. He is so focused on the cause, Bruni tells us, that he dashed off an early morning email to confidants seeking advice on how best to capitalize on the opportunity.

These days, the Super Bowl is an explosion of marketing encapsalating a football game that often suffers because of it. But that's not going to change. It will be interesting to see how various players use the opportunity to shape their image.

Phelps and Lewis, again

You may have seen that Michael Phelps publicly thanked Ray Lewis for helping him push through his pre-Olympic doldrums.

Here's another telling of that post-Patriot's win scene, from Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post.

In the story, Phelps is compared to any other 20-something Ravens fan who had football arrive back in his world in 1996, ushered by Lewis' hard hits and vocal leadership. Phelps just also happened to go on to become one of the greatest Olympians of all time, and to become friends with Ray Lewis.

One quote, in particular, stood out in the Post story. Phelps is explaining why he turned to Lewis when it became difficult to find motivation to keep training.

“He’s probably the only person who could really help me do that,” Phelps said. “He’s been through everything — the ups and downs — and he’s helped me literally overcome a lot of things that I’ve had in my life that have been tough, and he’s been there for me.”

At the risk of jumping in to a discussion that has boiled up repeatedly since Lewis announced his retirment, it's fair to point out that this sentiment is fairly common around Baltimore.

There will be another barrage of stories attempting to define Lewis' legacy over the next two weeks, and outside of the city where he spent his whole career there are people who can't get past the fact that he faced murder charges. Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel said as much in a column that was also posted on The Baltimore Sun's website. That generated 122 comments. Another story about how the early-morning incident in Atlanta shaped Lewis life also sparked robust conversation, as did a Dan Rodricks column saying the case against Lewis was flawed from the start.

Fans of the Ravens are going to seize on evidence that exhonarates Lewis, such as testimony that he played a peace-maker role during the fight. Others will emphasize the fact that he admitted to obstructing justice in a case that hasn't been solved, or that the white suit he wore that night was supposedly never found. That's how these things go.

But it's too simplistic to say that all Ravens fans simply swept aside what happened in Atlanta because Ray Lewis is a good linebacker, inspiring speaker and talented squirrel dancer.

Many of the people I spoke to before Lewis' last home game, the playoff win against the Colts, said Lewis was in the "wrong place at the wrong time" in Atlanta. And that learning not to be in those places at those times -- or with the people who want to go there -- is a part of growing up that they could relate to. They do think Ray Lewis made a mistake in Atlanta, albeit they had different outlooks on how serious his actions were. But none of them dismissed it completely. Instead, they saw it as part of of maturation process and something that he's used for good in subsequent years.

Lewis and Phelps are Baltimore icons. Both are endorsed by Under Armour. It would surprise nobody if the two worked together in some fashion in the years to come.

The brother-in-law

Get ready to hear a lot from Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean. He's married to Joani Crean, née Harbaugh.

He discussed John and Jim on the Big Ten Conference call Monday, then again with Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz.

Crean doesn't offer much you couldn't guess on your own: the Harbaugh brothers are intense.

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