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National Football League launches NFL Pride with Roger Goodell and league staff

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The league welcomed openly gay former pro athletes to talk about steps ahead for the NFL.

In attendence were (l-r): NFL Pride founders John Cora and Michael Castor, Cyd Zeigler, Jason Collins, Roger Goodell, Billy Bean and Ryan O’Callaghan.
Eric Espino

The National Football League on Wednesday held the official launch of its LGBTQ employee affinity group, NFL Pride. The event was hosted at the league office in New York and was attended by approximately 150 people, including league commissioner Roger Goodell.

The invited speakers for the afternoon were gay former professional athletes and set the stage for important conversations: MLB’s Billy Bean, former NBA center Jason Collins and former NFL offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan. I was fortunate to be the moderated for the discussion. Each of these men talked about their struggles as an athlete living a secret life, their communications with current athletes, and LGBTQ-inclusion efforts they have seen work in other leagues.

One element all the speakers seemed to agree on is the importance of creating a more-inclusive environment for LGBTQ people in sports, and the welcome arrival of NFL Pride. It was a message shared in casual conversation around the room for the two-hour gathering.

In addition to Goodell, the event was attended by some of the most powerful people in the NFL. Executive vice-president Troy Vincent and Robert Gulliver, head of NFL human resources, both addressed the audience. Other attendees included COO Tod Leiweke, CFO Joe Siclare, senior vice-president of social responsibility Anna Isaacson, head of officiating Al Riveron and many others. Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli took a day away from training camp in Georgia to attend the event and support his former player, O’Callaghan.

The event coincidentally took place on the day the Texas House of Representatives chose to abandon anti-LGBT “bathroom bills,” something various people in the room said they were celebrating.

After the main event, Goodell spent another half hour talking with the speakers and invited guests, taking pictures and sharing the importance of making the NFL an inclusive place for all. Having watched him throughout the presentation, he never once looked at his watch or phone and seemed truly engaged in the conversation the panelists were exploring. His presence at the entire event demonstrated powerful support for NFL Pride’s mission.

The turnout was impressive, with about 150 people in an office of about 400 during a month with training camps and vacations. Many key contributors to the group — including Samantha Rapoport, Julie Haddon and Dawn Hudson — were out of town due to work responsibilities. Even with many out of town, at one point Goodell quipped that he wouldn’t get that strong of a turnout if he was talking about bonuses.

NFL Pride got its start several years ago as the kernel of an idea from various members of the NFL Diversity Council as they created various employee affinity groups over the last few years, Gulliver told the crowd. He said the council waited until they could receive commitments from enough employees – at least 30 – to support a substantial and sustained effort. They didn’t want to create something then watch it flounder.

It was the chance meeting of two gay NFL employees – John Cora and Michael Castor – in a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen that the initiative got a real foothold. Several months ago the two men approached the Diversity Council about launching NFL Pride, and that effort led to this week’s launch.

The NFL has said that similar launch events at NFL offices in Culver City, Calif., and Mount Laurel, N.J., may be coming.

Troy Vincent, Robert Gulliver and the Falcons’ Scott Pioli share a laugh during the NFL Pride kickoff.
Eric Espino
Billy Bean, Jason Collins and Ryan O’Callaghan spoke about their personal journeys in sports.
Eric Espino
Commissioner Roger Goodell and the entire audience applauded multiple times listening to the gay former pro athletes share their stories.
Eric Espino
About 150 NFL staffers attended the launch of NFL Pride.
Eric Espino