Former NFL player Esera Tuaolo says that a gay man has played in the Super Bowl before. He should know — he himself played for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1999 Super Bowl XXXIII while being closeted.
The Falcons lost that game, and when their team bus returned to the hotel, Tuaolo saw all his team members hugging their wives and girlfriends in the parking lot. His boyfriend was there, but he didn’t feel he could embrace him in public. Instead, Tuaolo waited until they were alone in their hotel room. The need to hide angered him so much that he put his fist through a wall in his room. He retired from the NFL that same year.
They’re cute and in love.
But Tuaolo came out in 2002 and he has fought for greater acceptance of gay athletes ever since. He shared the pain of being a closeted pro-footballer in his 2007 memoir Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL, founded the sports anti-bullying non-profit Hate is Wrong in 2017, and has held a Super Bowl “Inclusion party” and panel to advocate for LGBTQ+ acceptance in sports.
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As an advocate for LGBTQ+ equality, he began educating corporations, colleges, and high schools across America on the importance of inclusivity, served as a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Athletics Foundation, and has discussed homophobia and bullying on talk shows like Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
There are signs that his push for inclusion is working. This year, NFL and GLAAD hosted a “Night of Pride” that several hundred people attended to welcome and show solidarity with LGBTQ+ fans. Several teams have welcomed out gay male and trans female cheerleaders, instated policies demanding respect for NFL players and employees, publicly opposed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and donated to LGBTQ+ charities.
In 2021, the NFL even made a video saying “Football is Gay” to embrace queer fans.
In the last decade, two players have come out during their NFL careers. In 2014, Michael Sam became the first out gay man drafted by an NFL franchise, though he only played in a few preseason games for the St. Louis Rams before being cut from the team. In 2021, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib became the first gay man to come out while actively playing for an NFL team, but he retired about two years later, leaving the league without any other out players.
But despite this, Tuaolo feels not enough has changed, especially since there has never been an out gay football player at any Super Bowl. He and many other queer players have said that they can’t play their best when they’re not allowed to play as their fully authentic selves, and yet he feels that many still feel that homosexuality conflicts with the NFL’s hypermasculine image.
“I’ve just been going around the country telling my story, educating people, making sure that they understand that we exist, that there are other gay football players out there and to create a safe environment for them,” Tuaolo told LGBTQ Nation. “When I speak to athletic directors and coaches, they ask me that one question: ‘How can we make it better?'”
While he says homophobia is generally less tolerated in the league and among its players than before, the NFL team owners and managers must continue building a foundation to make closeted footballers feel like they’d be welcomed and supported when coming out.
Foremost, he thinks that the NFL combine — the annual week-long February showcase where college football players demonstrate their skill in front of coaches, managers, and scouts — should include a diversity camp.
“[They could] get somebody that’s been in the trenches, like Ryan O’Callaghan [the former NFL player who came out as gay in 2017] or myself… so when new guys ask questions, there’s a little bit of respect because we’ve been there, done that,” he said.
He also says college and NFL teams should implement zero-tolerance policies against homophobia that are announced during first-day meetings.
That way, “if something happens, you can just say, ‘Hey dude, the coach doesn’t tolerate that,’ or maybe it gives that guy that’s in the closet some strength, knowing that he’s in the right place, a place where he can make that call [to come out[ and know he feels safe,” he said.
“You have to start there,” he added, “Make it a point to educate them so that when somebody comes out, it’s not a big deal.”
While many other Major League Baseball and National Hockey League (NHL) teams have held Pride Nights — partnering with LGBTQ+ organizations, selling rainbow-colored team apparel, and showing players wearing Pride-themed warm-up jerseys — only one NFL team has hosted a Pride night: the Washington Commanders in 2021.
Pride Night events aren’t just about getting “the pink dollar.” Such events also convey queer acceptance to other fans, players, team owners, and the cities that host them, potentially signaling that queer players are welcome.
Some NHL Pride Night events have been derailed by reports of players choosing not to wear rainbow-colored gear because it conflicts with their personal religious beliefs. As a Christian, Tuaolo says such occasions provide a chance to show the queer community’s tolerance of different beliefs.
“If a player does not want to wear a rainbow jersey and stuff… and if he doesn’t have a background of negativity towards the LGBTQ community… we as a community shouldn’t shouldn’t castigate them,” he said. “You have to respect their values and what they believe as much as we want them to respect ours… Attacking someone, I don’t think that’s that that’s helping at all.”
The best thing that queer NFL fans and allies within the league can do, Tuaolo believes, is what he’s done: Keep speaking up for the many queer players who are already playing, so that one day, if they decide to come out, they’ll know there are thousands of people ready to support them.
“One of the reasons why I speak up is because I want to create a whole different vibe, right?” he said. “Because I want that person coming up behind me to feel like he can earn a yellow coat [in the NFL Hall of Fame].”