In 2006, Esera Tuaolo was speaking to an audience of about 200 NFL players and employees, most of whom were incoming rookies. His topic: the bitter nine-year struggle he faced as a closeted gay man in the homophobic NFL.
Tuaolo was telling the impressionable young players that the hundreds of men he played with and against never knew his orientation. His teammates denigrated and abused gay people as a matter of locker-room course, unaware their barbs were slicing one of their own to shreds.
As Tuaolo also told Outsports.com, he had "bit his lip" and suffered vile slurs and repulsive jokes in silence. At the symposium, the hopeful pros were paying solemn attention.
Some were nodding in understanding as Tuaolo told them a gay man may someday wear their same uniform, battling in the trenches alongside them.
But according to several Pro Football Talk sources, the message didn't reach everyone. During the talk-back session, incoming Titans running back LenDale White asked Tuaolo a question:
"Is it offensive if I call you a faggot if you are a faggot?"
The culture of professional football was born in the 1920s, a no-holds-barred pit of uncompromising violence and brutality. Today, hits that cause severe concussions draw fines and suspensions. In 1952, safety Hardy Brown made the Pro Bowl for how often he knocked opponents out cold.
Football coaches, players and fans relished the sport's extreme swagger, violence and machismo. Many had served in the military and held militaristic views on training, discipline, right and wrong. They also held militaristic views on homosexuality; it was falsely seen as the antithesis of manliness.
Even as recently as 1981, the US Department of Defense declared homosexuality as "incompatible with military service," and an out, or outed, homosexual soldier would be discharged. That illogical rejection of gay men existed in the culture of football, too—where the merest hint of weakness was, often, literally, beaten out of a player.
In 1979, Arizona State head coach Frank Kush was sued by a former player, punter Kevin Rutledge, for the extreme mental and physical harassment he instituted, including beating players with pipes and ropes.
Even today, this toughness-at-all-costs mentality pervades every level of the game. In 2009, a 15-year-old Texas high school offensive lineman, Max Gilpin, collapsed during a training run in 94-degree-heat.
When one player subsequently asked for a water break, Pleasure Ridge Park head coach Jason Stinson called him a "coward." Gilpin later died from heatstroke complications.
The culture of football is profoundly conservative. History and tradition are held in high esteem, and traditional values and attitudes come along for the ride. The birth of college football may have been in the Ivy League, but the soul of football has always been in the deep South.
Nowhere is football followed with more passion, nowhere is football more ubiquitous, and nowhere in America are social attitudes less progressive.
The SEC remained racially segregated until 1970, when Randall Cunningham's older brother, USC tailback Sam, dominated Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The SEC head coaching fraternity didn't admit its first African-American member until 2004—one year after the Supreme Court struck down (primarily) Southern laws that criminalized homosexuality.
What happens when socially conservative men with a pathological hatred for perceived weakness consider having a gay teammate? Just ask a former teammate of Tuaolo's, Packers great Sterling Sharpe.
"He would have been eaten alive and he would have been hated for it," Sharpe said to HBO. "Had he come out on a Monday, with Wednesday, Thursday, Friday practices, he'd have never gotten to the other team."
The NFL's homophobic culture must change.
Professional football is practically unrecognizable from its barbaric early days. In the near-century that's passed since the NFL's inception, players have gone from manual laborers making little more than a stipend to entertainers earning many times the national median income.
NFL players are highly visible, highly available social icons—not castoffs and misfits eking out a living by beating each other senseless. Players are even interacting with fans directly, tweeting, blogging, writing and speaking publicly about their hobbies, interests and passions.
It seems as though we are in the NFL’s age of enlightenment. Besides the advanced analytics available to coaches and the two-way media relationship that players have with fans, the tsunami of football information available has made fans an order of magnitude wiser than they were when Bear Bryant realized Alabama couldn’t be Alabama without players of every color wearing crimson and white.
But just as it took football too long to reflect the broad social acceptance of civil rights for all people regardless of race, it's taken football too long to accept that sexuality has nothing to do with mental toughness or on-field performance.
The opposite of this is true; there's nothing tough about hate. There's nothing strong about intolerance. Calling homosexual men "faggots" doesn't make you a better football player.
LenDale White found that out the hard way. He lasted only four years in the NFL, less than half as long as Tuaolo.
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