(This story was published in 2004).

Esera Tuaolo has given many talks since he came out two years ago as a former NFL player who is gay. But none may have been more fulfilling than addressing the league he played in for nine years.

Responding to an invitation he described as “kind of a shocker to me,” Tuaolo on June 30 spoke to nearly 200 NFL employees at league headquarters in New York on the topic of being a gay man in sports. He told the audience, which included top league executives, how important it was for gay and lesbian employees to have the same rights as heterosexuals in employment and benefits, and for the league to be accepting of gay players.

“It was a very uplifting experience for me,” Tuaolo told Outsports, “and an eye-opening experience for the employees in the NFL because it’s such a homophobic environment in pro football.”

Tuaolo was invited by the league to speak as part of its diversity program, and suggested that he believed some gay NFL employees pushed for it. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was unable to attend, but Tuaolo said he received a letter from him expressing his appreciation for the player’s appearance.

Tuaolo played in the league as a defensive lineman for nine seasons, most of them with the Minnesota Vikings. He created a national splash when he came out in October 2002 after retiring. Tuaolo’s story was compelling—a 300-pound defensive lineman who was also an accomplished singer with a partner of eight years and two children. His success in a brutal position in a brutal sport shattered perceptions of what a gay athlete was.

In his talk to the NFL, Tuaolo used his family, and that of his partner Mitchell’s sister-in-law, to make a point about equality. Using pictures of both families, Tuaolo weaved a story that highlighted the similarities they shared, but also the crucial differences. The latter focused on the protections and benefits afforded heterosexual families that are denied to gay and lesbian families. He urged the league to adopt domestic partner benefits for its employees and players.

“I told them they need to change with the times,” Tuaolo said. He described the reaction to his hour-plus talk as “fantastic” and said that league official Art Shell, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and former head coach with the Raiders, made a point of shaking his hand and sitting in the front row.

“I hope it’s the start of something … I think I got my message across,” Tuaolo said. He also has a sense of history, specifically thanking David Kopay, a former NFL player who came out in the 1970s. “God bless Dave Kopay for all he’s done,” Tuaolo said. “I hope what I did would help what he started.”

Tuaolo hopes his NFL talk is a beginning, not an end, adding that he wanted the NFL to integrate the topic of homophobia into its 2005 rookie symposium, which all incoming players must attend. The New York Times quoted league spokesman Greg Aiello as saying “we are clearly evaluating that idea and how it can be done.”

49ers Preach Diversity

Tuaolo’s appearance comes on the heels of an interesting diversity workshop held in June by the San Francisco 49ers. The session focused on race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. The team held the session in response to two incidents of homophobia, and after meeting with San Francisco’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Advisory Committee.

The first incident was the widely reported comment by running back Garrison Hearst (now with Denver) in 2002 that he didn’t want any “faggots” as teammates. The second was the story in ESPN the Magazine this year on longtime team trainer Lindsy McLean, who revealed that he was frequently verbally abused and taunted for being gay. The worst offender, according to the article, was lineman Ted Washington (now with Oakland), who simulated rape against McLean on at least one occasion while others watched and did nothing.

The Times and San Francisco Chronicle reported that the 49ers’ diversity training was very moving for many players, getting them to understand each other better and pointing out how intolerance of any kind can be hurtful and divisive. Included in the presentation was a discussion of Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming student killed in 1998 for being gay. Some players came away with a more positive view of gay people.

“I could play with somebody being gay,” said the defensive back Ronnie Heard, according to the Times. “Would it be weird at the beginning? Yeah, but I can’t hate him as a person. You don’t have to agree biblically, but what kind of example am I setting for my kid if I’m an activist for blacks and I discriminate toward gays?”

“Someone might make a stupid comment about homosexuals in the locker room,” Heard told the Chronicle, “and you have no idea who is hearing it. You don’t know who is gay, or who has a family member who’s gay. Nobody says anything, and then you go out on the practice field, and this person’s still mad, and he goes after the other guy. Now, you’ve got a fight, and nobody knows why.”

Receiver Cedrick Wilson echoed Heard, saying that the reality was that other players might be gay. But, he told the Times, if he is a good player and “his sexuality happens to be different, I could care less.”

Linebacker Brandon Moore took a more cautious approach. “Football is such a macho sport, based around masculinity and testosterone,” said Moore. “As much as one person might hate another because of one thing, they seem to hate more because of sexuality.” Moore told the Times he thought that the day of playing with an openly gay teammate could arrive, but “I just don’t think it is close.”

“The idea wasn’t to try to change people’s minds or focusing on one thing, ” Guy McIntyre, a former 49ers offensive lineman who is now the club’s director of player programs, told the Chronicle. “It was about changing our understanding, honestly studying what diversity means in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and background and a lot of other parts of our lives.”

Tuaolo said the fact that the league held a seminar for its employees could send a powerful message to teams, especially ones not as proactive as the 49ers.

“Change has got to come from the top of the league, and hopefully it will trickle down to the individual teams,” Tuaolo said.

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