Athlete and Advocate Brendon Ayanbadejo Says What Doesn’t Challenge You, Doesn’t Change You

Reflecting on a June like no other.

Hi Brendon, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Between COVID-19, the racial justice protests and Pride month, June must be a particularly significant and personal time for you.

Brendon Ayanbadejo: I think it’s been a good month—a month for change, a month to get uncomfortable, a month to grow, a month for love. A lot’s going on—not only with social injustice as far Black Lives Matters in America and the world but the Supreme Court also issued rulings in favor of LGBTQ rights. We are slowly getting back to work in California as well. So it’s been a tough month, but if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.

We laughed. We cried. We had our hearts broken. We’ve seen allies come to our aid. I’m excited for where we’re going. Of course, we still have a lot of work to do on all fronts.

My family is doing really well. We have a new baby at home. She’s 6 months now, but she was born into this. She’s been the glue to hold us all together. I never would have had this amount of time to spend with her and my other two kids. So we’ve been on the grind at home doing virtual school, virtual sports (LOL), all that stuff. We are working out together and spending a lot of time together. TikTok has been clutch. We’re a closer, better family due to the quarantine.

You played football for UCLA before embarking on a 13-year career with the NFL and a Super Bowl win with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. But most recently you’ve transitioned to developer of several Orangetheory Fitness studios in California. How did that partnership come about?

BA: For the origin of my Orangetheory involvement, we have to go back to 2013 and the Super Bowl. I was under the impression that after becoming a newly crowned Super Bowl champion, I was going to be able to take some time off, rest and relax for a couple of weeks. Well, my wife had other ideas.

She dragged me into an Orangetheory three days after the Super Bowl. I walked into my very first class very stiff. I sat on a water rower for the first time, and my body warmed up and I started feeling good.

My entire life I had been working out and doing group fitness with the best athletes and trainers in the world. As a pro athlete you get paid to work out—around $150 a day. It’s not a part of your salary either. Some guys have huge, seven-figure, off-season workout bonuses and entire teams they employ to get an edge.

It’s a different beast when you’re working out to improve upon your health, to improve upon your fitness, to live a longer, more vibrant and better life as opposed to for your career only. And so I felt that energy and joy immediately.

Eventually I went to OTF’S corporate headquarters, and they welcomed me with open arms. We haven’t looked back since. I found my passion with Orangetheory. I am now part of a group that owns 45 studios and counting in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, Sacramento, and in and around Cincinnati, Ohio, as well as Melbourne, Australia. We literally are improving thousands of people’s lives on a daily basis.

 

Now that many gyms and studios have begun the process of reopening, what do you see happening at Orangetheory? 

BA: There are still a lot of unknowns, but we’re doing everything we can from a safety perspective in terms of taking care of our employees and taking care of the members. Health and safety have always been in our DNA. Now we are taking it to the next level. If there are 10 classes in a day, the studio will get cleaned 10 times that day. We’ve also shortened classes and added more classes to the daily schedule. We are accommodating members who want to be back in the studio with more options for class times.

I see us getting back to being a growth model business. I think it’s going to take a little more time than we anticipated. We have seen from other Orangetheory studios in the network that have been open a few weeks that, even with some changes, a large percentage of members are back in the studio working out and loving it. I’d love for us to find a vaccine for sure, so everybody feels safe and we can get back to growing our business from where we left off. But we’ll see how that goes.

Just as COVID-19 restrictions began to loosen across the state, the nation erupted in protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. You’ve talked much about being the son of a Nigerian father and a mother of Irish descent. What particular struggles did you encounter as a young, biracial man?

BA: I would say it was more so when I was a kid. People would say, “Oh, is Brendon Black? Is he Latino? Like, what is he?” So I had to adapt and fit into every single crowd. I think that’s what taught me to be a chameleon and fit in with any group. Between living in the inner city of Chicago and then living in Santa Cruz—a beach town that is predominantly White but also Latinos and Blacks—I got to spend time with a lot of different people. I was pretty fortunate to have two extremes of places that I grew up in.

But I also felt like I always had to represent being Nigerian American. Being Black, I just felt like I had to stand up and represent so much more. I had so much more on my shoulders. I had to represent the entire race of Black people in a very positive light at all times, and I accepted that responsibility.

But, you know, you shouldn’t have to feel like you’re representing a whole race. You should be able to be an individual, seen as an individual and treated equally. Those are still things I’m sorting out today as a man. But, yeah, it’s made me who I am today, so I wouldn’t change anything.

Also in June, we recognize Loving Month. There were anti-miscegenation laws, so racial mixing wasn’t allowed. This month we celebrate the United States allowing Black-and-White couples to get married. It’s hard to fathom that America still attempts to dictate who we can and can’t love. Ask the LGBTQ community.

 

What is your biggest hope coming out of the protests in recent weeks?

BA: When you see racism really take shape and you hear people talking about the looters and the buildings and property being burned down, it’s so sad. Mostly White people asking, “Why are they doing this?” Then you blatantly see that there’s racism. After 400 years of oppression, some people are more concerned about property than fellow human beings.

We can rebuild walls. We can replace glass. We can replace merchandise. But we can’t bring back Trayvon Martin. We can’t bring back George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, Eric Garner and countless others are NEVER coming home.

And even in the wake of this, we’ve seen lynching—three lynchings in the last month. We’ve seen continued police killings even in the wake of these protests. And people are still more concerned about property.

White people have felt unsafe for the very first time. “Are people going to target me because I’m White? Are people going to break into my house? Are people going to burn down my business? And am I going to lose something, or am I going to be targeted because of the color of my skin?”

People of color have felt this way since the inception of this nation. So I think that’s a good thing. I think it can build empathy, teach and maybe open up some of the racist things that you didn’t see or realize you had inside of you.

We’re going to learn from this, and we’re ultimately going to be better from this. And a lot of things have already changed. We’re addressing incarceration reform. We’re addressing police reform. We’re addressing things you can do socially to support people of color.

We’re talking about different ways you can acknowledge and confront your own racism, things you didn’t realize. It isn’t necessarily that you’re a bad person. It’s just that you had some blind spots. So we’re addressing those things, and we’re working on those things with our allies who want to change.

I think overall the good that is going to come out of this will overwhelmingly outweigh the bad. I’m excited about the country we are building through this tough time. We’re not there yet. We’ve still got a ways to go, but we’re finally starting to address it.

I’m proud that the NFL is starting to address it and talk about it. And we’ll see what the players do in the NFL and other sports this year in terms of kneeling, and how owners support them in the NFL. It’s not about disrespecting the flag or the military. It’s all about civil rights, especially when it comes to police brutality and incarceration that has deep systemic racism built into it.

June is also Pride month, and you have been a huge advocate for LGBTQ rights, specifically for same-sex marriage. What ignited that passion in you?

BA: Well, I think everybody’s always looked at it as gay rights, but just take off the LGBTQ for a moment. Now let’s just call it RIGHTS. That’s my way of addition by subtraction. We have to now add back all the disenfranchised groups in America.

Let’s throw in people of color. Let’s throw in women. Let’s throw in children. Let’s throw in immigrants and DREAMERS. Let’s throw in religion. I started with LGBTQ because it was their time. Nothing is more powerful than an idea in the right time and place. 2012 was the year of “love is love.” As human beings, we should want everybody to have the same rights and to be treated equally.

I started talking about LGBTQ rights in 2009. It’s been awesome that so many NFL players have reached out to me. They’re saying, “I get it. I finally understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. I didn’t get it before. It’s RIGHTS, and it’s RIGHTS for everybody.”

Loving v. Virginia ignited all this in me. This country’s always been trying to tell people who they can and cannot love. But love is love, and LGBTQ love will ultimately build upon the family unit.

You need two parents who love you and take care of you. We need these families to have health care, marriage rights, adoption rights, rights in the workplace. This will make our children stronger and more capable adults. After all, the divorce rate is lower in the LGBTQ community than the straight community. We could use a lesson in love.

 

Now that the first half of this unprecedented year is over, what’s next for you in 2020?

BA: We definitely want to recover in every single way possible. We want our business to recover. We want our hearts to recover. We want our health to recover. I think the most pressing thing right now is eradicating disease. Not just COVID-19 but racism as well.

Everybody’s cooped up in the house, you’re watching the news and you’re not around other humans. We need to be loved and touched and express ourselves in a lot of different ways with people.  We want to get out of 2020 with some type of cure for COVID-19 and some type of cure for racism and bigotry. Both have plagued our world for far too long.

I’m excited to see what 2021 holds, but we have to work through the rest of 2020. We can’t just rest on our laurels. The world is going to be a different place, that’s for sure. I plan on being a part of the solution.

 

One final question. You go by your middle name, Brendon, but your first name is Oladele. What does it translate to?

BA: In Nigerian culture, your grandmother typically names you. I was born in Chicago, and my grandmother knew we’d be coming home to Nigeria soon. So Oladelemeans “wealth follows me home.” I thought that was a beautiful name and a good tribute to the motherland.

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