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NFL Fumbles On Same-Sex Partner Benefits

Neither the Buccaneers nor Raiders, the two Super Bowl participants, would discuss the issue

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

When it comes to same-sex domestic partner benefits in the NFL, only one team acknowledges offering them and very few want to talk about them.

Interviews conducted by Outsports.com found only the San Francisco 49ers were willing to say that they offer same-sex domestic partner benefits to their staff employees. However, due to the collective bargaining agreement, those playing for the 49ers are still without those benefits since they are covered by the agreement.

All 32 teams in the National Football League were contacted, along with the NFL front office and the NFL Players Association, to determine what equal benefits were offered to the same-sex domestic partners of staff employees and players. Of the 32 teams, 11 said they do not offer their staff those benefits, seven declined to comment, and 13 didn't offer any response at all.

While the League itself does not offer any of its 400 employees same-sex partner benefits, Vice-President of Public Relations Greg Aiello, said, "It is something we've been looking at."

The issue of gays in the NFL took on a high profile last fall when Esera Tuaolo, a former defensive tackle with several teams in the League, announced that he is gay. The many subsequent stories on Tuaolo focused on his relationship in Minneapolis with his life partner Mitchell Wherley and their two adopted children. As it currently stands, Tuaolo would not be able to leave his NFL pension to his survivors, as would a heterosexual player. "We're hoping things will change," Tuaolo said on the Phil Donahue show in December.

The issue received further coverage in late November when the San Francisco 49ers expressed regret over anti-gay comments uttered by running back Garrison Hearst. In citing his team's commitment to tolerance and diversity, John York noted that the 49ers have offered domestic partnership benefits to their employees since 1997.

Peter Harris, 49ers president and CEO credits team consultant Bill Walsh with their forward-thinking policy on same-sex partner benefits. "Bill Walsh has done a number of things here that are progressive and reflect a commitment to people. This came from his vision," Harris said.

In 1997, the City of San Francisco passed its Nondiscrimination in Benefits Ordinance that says a company contracting with the City "will not during the term of the contract discriminate in the provision of bereavement leave, family medical leave, health benefits, membership or membership discounts, moving expenses, pension and retirement benefits or travel benefits ... between employees with domestic partners and employees with spouses...." The 49ers fall under that ordinance because they have a contract leasing their stadium from the City.

The 49ers were the exception, however. When asked why they do not offer same-sex domestic partner benefits, several team representatives said it was because no one has ever asked for them. Wayne Besen, Deputy Director of Communications for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights advocacy group, said this reasoning is the problem.

"The fact that no one has asked for it is exactly why they need to take the affirmative action to offer it," Besen said. "People aren't comfortable coming out. The NFL has an obligation to make sure people are comfortable coming out."

Besen noted that many of the companies and organizations with whom the NFL does business offer these benefits, including:

  • Every television network that carries NFL games (ABC/ESPN, Fox, CBS) and major sponsors Nike, Motorola, and RealNetworks.
  • Companies that prominently feature NFL personalities in their commercials including Campbell Soup Co. and Visa.
  • Many companies that own or have the naming rights to NFL stadiums including PSINET, Gillette, Qualcomm, Lincoln National Corp., and Ford.
  • At the collegiate level, at least 30 Division 1A football schools offer same-sex domestic partner benefits. In addition, some Major League Baseball teams, including the Turner-owned Atlanta Braves and Disney-owned Anaheim Angles, offer their employees same-sex domestic partner benefits.

Besen pointed to the recent controversy regarding the lack of black head coaches as representative of the attitude of the NFL. "I think it's indicative of the backwardness and sets the tone of the workplace," Besen said. "If they put these things into action, they'd develop a more accepting atmosphere. If you look at society, companies that have gay-positive policies offer more opportunities for everybody."

Seven of the NFL teams reached refused to comment on whether they offer these benefits or not. When asked why they would not comment, some said that they do not release their policy information "due to the competitive nature of our business."

"That's about the weakest excuse I've heard," Besen said. "Is a quarterback going to throw more interceptions, or will they be unable to recruit, if they offer [domestic partner] benefits? I fail to see how that's logical in any way."

Besen and HRC attempted to contact NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue two months ago about helping the League with issues such as sensitivity training and offering domestic partner benefits. They have gotten no response.

"These people live in a bubble of like-minded individuals who don't discuss this issue," Besen said. "Many haven't had to deal with gay people or other modern realities. This great wall of ignorance has to come down."

While the 49ers are required by law to offer domestic partner benefits, their cross-bay rivals, the Oakland Raiders, are not. The City of Oakland has an ordinance very similar to the one in San Francisco that requires any company doing contractual work in excess of $25,000 with the City of Oakland to, if they offer health benefits to the spouses of employees, offer benefits to the registered same-sex partners of employees. However, the Raiders do not fall under that ordinance as their lease contract is technically with Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Inc. and not directly with the city. When called for comment, the Raiders declined, with a spokesman saying they were "busy preparing for the AFC Championship."

The City of Seattle has a similar code as well, but the Seahawks' lease contract, as with the Raiders, is not with the City of Seattle.

It is impossible to determine how many employees or players would be eligible for same-sex domestic partner benefits. A few years ago, former player David Kopay inquired of the NFL Players Association about getting his potential partner the same benefits offered to the opposite-sex spouses of other pensioned former players. He was denied.

"They said, no way," Kopay says. "You have to be married. Well, duh! I can't be married."

Tradition, says Kopay, is the reasoning behind the league turning a blind eye to the issue; and a multibillion dollar industry that thrives off of the myths of masculinity isn't going to change those traditions until pushed to the brink to do so.

When asked if he thought the NFL and NFLPA would make concerted efforts in this offseason to deal with this issue, Kopay's answer was doubtful at best: "I certainly hope to hell." Gene Upshaw, Executive Director of the NFL Players Association, did not return phone calls for comment.

Tuaolo's disclosure prompted many NFL players to give their opinions of playing with a gay teammate - some positive and some negative. When Tuaolo's former teammate, Sterling Sharpe, said that, if Tuaolo had come out while an active player he would have been injured by his own teammates, the league was quick to respond. Aiello characterized Sharpe's message as "unfortunate and irresponsible," and went on to declare the N.F.L. a "meritocracy" based on "job performance." "And on that basis an individual's sexual orientation is entirely irrelevant," he said.

Besen feels that the league is being pushed to the brink now by the unhealthy situation that it has allowed to develop

"We have examples now of people who have gone through a very difficult time because of the atmosphere created [in the NFL]: Tuaolo in Green Bay and Minnesota. Knowing what they know now, it would be irresponsible for them not to do something about it."