Story from June 28, 2006
The NFL included an openly gay speaker in the diversity training program at its rookie symposium in San Diego earlier this week for the first time in the program's 10-year history. Openly gay former NFL defensive tackle Esera Tuaolo was the featured speaker.
According to Tuaolo, 37, the man behind the inclusion of gay issues was NFL Vice President of Player and Employee Development Mike Haynes, a Hall of Fame cornerback who played for the Patriots and Raiders.
"When I took the job four years ago, one of the things I wanted to really stress was tolerance," Haynes told ESPN's Len Pasquarelli. "And that takes on a lot of forms, from tolerating the kind of music that's maybe being played in the locker room, to the way a guy dresses, or even what part of the country he is from. And so this was just a natural step in the evolution."
Tuaolo has been talking with the NFL for several years about including more outreach to combat the homophobia that seems to plague the league's locker rooms. In 2004, he was invited to speak to nearly 200 NFL employees at league headquarters in New York on the topic of being a gay man in sports.
While he had his presentation lined up and his quips in his head for his talk to the new recruits, he was nonetheless wary of talking about his homosexuality to a room full of NFL rookies.
"I was a bit nervous going into the whole situation," Tuaolo told Outsports. Tuaolo said his anxiety was quickly quieted when a large, masculine man was sent to greet him at the hotel. The man, who is straight, thanked Tuaolo for opening his eyes to the destructive power of stereotypes and his own homophobia.
"You definitely made a difference in my life and my views of homosexuality," the anonymous man said. That greeting set the tone for the rest of Tuaolo's efforts at the symposium.
Tuaolo is no stranger to speaking to crowds about his life and the issues that are important to him. He has been on a book tour over the last several months, promoting his book, Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL. He has been an honored guest at Gay Pride celebrations. He has even spoken to the Minnesota State Legislature about gay marriage. But this would be different. He would be talking to NFL players, fresh out of college. He remembered the attitudes that pervaded that group when he was a part of it 15 years ago. There was reason for anxiety.
"It was like going into the lion's den with all these macho dudes," Tuaolo said.
The symposium is mandatory for all 255 rookies selected in the NFL draft. At the diversity segment, which covers several topics of diversity, the rookies were divided into four groups. Tuaolo spoke to about 60 at a time.
Tuaolo grabbed their attention by listing some of his athletic accomplishments: A nine-year NFL veteran (mostly with Minnesota and Green Bay), a starter, voted to the all-rookie team, and a member of the 1998 NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. The rookies in attendance knew some of them wouldn't even make the team.
"As an athlete, they had to respect what I'd done," Tuaolo said.
Possessing a deep knowledge of his audience, Tuaolo's approach was not to indoctrinate them but to share with them.
"I'm not here to change you," he told the rookies. "I'm not here to convert you. I'm here to educate you on the issues of homophobia in football and sports."
Esera shared some of his personal experiences as a gay man in the NFL, some of the hurtful words he heard used in locker rooms, hiding all of the nine years he was a player.
"I think a lot of guys were shocked at what [Tuaolo] had to tolerate at times," Haynes told ESPN.
What shocked Tuaolo was the reaction to his stories. Having been one of the bright-eyed macho 22-year-olds who had just gotten a big ego boost in the draft, he know the group was usually dominated by a lot of jokes and laughter. Instead, when he spoke, the room was silent with rookies around the room nodding their heads in agreement with what he was saying.
Tuaolo got only one nasty question in his four rounds of the presentation: "Is it offensive if I call you a faggot if you are a faggot?" The tone of the question was not one of genuine curiosity.
"The response from the room was lots of groans and guys were rolling their eyes," Tuaolo said. "It was like guys were saying, 'I'm glad I'm not on his team.' "
Tuaolo's answer to the question was simple: "Anytime you use it negatively, it's just not right."
After each presentation, Tuaolo said many players came up to him, shook his hand, and thanked him for sharing with them. He was particularly happy to see so many of the Polynesian players thank him.
While a culture of homophobia is still perceived to reign in football, as with most sports, Tuaolo said the NFL's attitude toward homosexuality is changing:
"They didn't have to include me in this. But, they did. They're working on it. They are moving forward. Things just aren't going to happen overnight. I felt really proud of myself. I feel really good. It was cool to go back as a gay man to where I used to play."
Tuaolo is already looking forward to being a part of next year's rookie symposium. He also would like to branch out and start visiting the teams, talking to the veterans, the coaches - everyone.
"There's still a lot of work to do," Tuaolo said, "but our foot is in the door and they're talking about it. For some people that's not enough; but for me it is - for now."