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Gay-rights backers wait for their Jackie Robinson

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Gay-rights backers wait for their Jackie Robinson

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Brendon Ayanbadejo has heard from many players who applaud his support of gay marriage - some of them teammates, others from the opposing side of the line.

Then, just days before the biggest game of the year, he received a striking reminder of the macho attitudes that still prevail in the NFL.

San Francisco cornerback Chris Culliver said he wouldn't welcome a gay player on his team. Even though he quickly backtracked, the comments underscored what Ayanbadejo already believed:

The league is still a long way from embracing its first openly gay player.

``It's going to take a very courageous person to come out,'' said Ayanbadejo, a backup linebacker and special teams ace for the Baltimore Ravens.

Culliver apologized Thursday, maintaining that what he said during an interview with comedian Artie Lange during Super Bowl media day - videotaped and posted on the Internet - were not his true beliefs.

``That's not what I feel in my heart,'' the defensive back said.

But Ayanbadejo (EYN'-beh-day-joe), who stirred debate this season by backing a gay-rights amendment in his adopted state of Maryland, estimates that at least half the NFL's players would agree with what Culliver said, at least privately.

Responding to a series of crude questions from Lange, Culliver said the 49ers didn't have any gay players, and if they did those players should leave. ``Can't be with that sweet stuff,'' he said, seemingly unaware that his comments would ever get back to San Francisco and the Bay Area, home to a large gay community.

``I'm sorry if I offended anyone. They were very ugly comments,'' Culliver said. ``Hopefully I will learn and grow from this experience and this situation. I love San Francisco.''

Whether he was honestly expressing his true feelings or trying to limit the damage, the comments prompted plenty of discussion about a larger issue: Is the NFL - or any major pro sport in the U.S. - ready to accept a player who comes out?

Several retired athletes have acknowledged their homosexuality after their careers were over. But no one has revealed it while actually suiting up, no doubt mindful of the divisiveness it might cause in the locker room.

``I'd say 50 percent of the people (in the NFL) think like Culliver. I'd say 25 percent of the people think like me. And 25 percent of the people are religious. They don't necessarily agree with all the things I agree with, but they're accepting,'' Ayanbadejo said. ``So it's a fight. It's an uphill battle.''

For Ayanbadejo, taking a strong stand on heated issues is just part of his makeup. The 36-year-old grew up in northern California - less than an hour from the 49ers current training facility - and learned at an early age from his family to treat all people with tolerance and respect. He remembers marveling at the skill of Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis, then finding out later he was gay.

``I thought it was awesome he could go out there and do his thing,'' Ayanbadejo said. ``No matter who you are or what you're doing, if you're doing something you love, you should be able to do that and express who you are.''

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.

``It's not going anywhere,'' Moss said. ``We're all the same people. What is it - a 16th of an inch of our skin color - that separates us from one another? I don't really look at gays in sports as a problem. We just need to accept it and move on.''

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AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley, Howard Fendrich and Barry Wilner contributed to this report.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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NFL finds no credible evidence Peyton Manning used HGH

NFL finds no credible evidence Peyton Manning used HGH

The NFL released a statement on Monday in which the league cleared former Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning after a seven-month investigation to determine if the two-time Super Bowl champion was provided with or took performance-enhancing drugs.

The investigation stemmed from an Al-Jazeera America report in December that listed Manning among the professional athletes to receive shipments ofhuman growth hormones.

The five-time NFL MVP vehemently denied the claims and welcomed the league to investigate the matter.

"Following a comprehensive seven-month investigation into allegations made in a documentary by Al-Jazeera America, the NFL found no credible evidence that Peyton Manning was provided with or used HGH or other substances prohibited by the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances," the league said in a statement.

"The Mannings were fully cooperative with the investigation and provided both interviews and access to all records sought by the investigators."

The Al-Jazeera America report alleged that Manning was sent shipments of HGH to his house under his wife's name from Charlie Sly, a pharmacist who worked at an anti-aging clinic in Indianapolis in 2011. Sly was Al Jazeera's key source, but then recanted his statements making the report all the more questionable.

Manning retired from the NFL in February following the Broncos' victory in Super Bowl 50 over the Carolina Panthers.

Initiated in January, the investigation was led by the NFL’s security and legal teams with support from expert consultants and other professionals. The investigation involved witness interviews, a review of relevant records and other materials, online research, and laboratory analysis and review.

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Ravens under the microscope: Best case, worst case for QB Joe Flacco

Ravens under the microscope: Best case, worst case for QB Joe Flacco

As we countdown to training camp, Clifton Brown and Bo Smolka will take turns putting 25 key Ravens under the microscope this month.

They’ll speculate on a best-case, worst-case scenario for at least one player every day. They’ll begin with players looking to carve out a role, or a roster spot. This is the final installment, ending with the Ravens’ most important and highest-paid player.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Joe Flacco, 31-year-old quarterback

Best-case scenario:

Flacco enjoys his best season, becomes a more consistent regular season quarterback, and leads the Ravens to the playoffs.

Why it could happen:

Already a Super Bowl MVP, Flacco is entering what should be the prime of his career.

Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees all had their best statistical seasons at age 30 or older. It’s a great sign that Flacco has recovered well enough from knee surgery to be ready for training camp. Barring any setbacks, the knee shouldn’t be an issue.  It’s also important that Flacco is working with the same coordinator, Marc Trestman, for a second straight season. Trestman and Flacco had growing pains in 2015, but they’re beginning this season with far more familiarity with each other. Meanwhile, the additions of wide receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Ben Watson give Flacco two additional veteran targets.

On paper, Flacco has more weapons than ever, particularly if tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receiver Breshad Perriman are healthy enough to be factors. Flacco’s arm strength, toughness, composure in pressure situations, and ability to make every throw are hard to question.

If rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley and the rest of the offensive line give Flacco time to survey the field, the stage is set for Flacco to have his best season.

Worst-case scenario:

Flacco’s game doesn’t ascend to another level, and as a result, neither does the Ravens’ offense.

Why it could happen:

Stats aren’t everything, but Flacco has never thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a season, has never thrown for 30 touchdown passes in a season, and has never had a quarterback rating higher than 93.6, which he had in 2010.

All of that may have to change for the Ravens to make the playoffs. Flacco has been a phenomenal post-season quarterback, but it remains to be seen if he can eliminate some of his regular season valleys. The Ravens invested more heavily in Flacco during the offseason, rewarding him with a three-year, $66 million contract extension that included a $40 million signing bonus.

To whom much is given, much is expected.  

Meeting higher expectations, while bouncing back from his first major injury, is the challenge facing Flacco.

RELATED: CAN SUGGS STILL BE AN IMPACT PLAYER?

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Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Will Suggs still be an impact player when he comes off PUP?

Clifton Brown and Bo Smolka are taking turns putting 25 key Ravens under the microscope leading up to veterans reporting to training camp. They’ll speculate on a best-case, worst-case scenario for at least one player every day, concluding with quarterback Joe Flacco on July 25.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Terrell Suggs, 33-year-old outside linebacker

Best-case scenario:

Suggs makes a full recovery from Achilles injury and returns as a double-digit sack artist and three-down linebacker.

Why it could happen:

Suggs knows people are wondering how much quality football he has left. It’s dangerous to write off great players too soon. Suggs would love to silence skeptics with a strong season, and if some of the young Ravens pass rushers develop, they won’t have to overwork Suggs. If he stays healthy once he comes off the PUP list, a player with Suggs’ talent and experience can still be a valuable defensive leader.

Worst-case scenario:

The Achilles injury limits what Suggs can do, and he is no longer an impact player.

Why it could happen:

It’s asking a lot of Suggs to remain a cog in the Ravens’ defense, after 106 ½ career sacks, and entering his 14th NFL season. Sooner or later, the NFL road will end for Suggs, just like it ended for his former great defensive teammates like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. It will be interesting to hear Suggs’ thoughts on his career when he meets with the media Wednesday. If 2016 is not Suggs’ last ride, the end of the journey is getting closer.

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