NFL deserves gay rights credit

It's been about 10 years since former NFL lineman Esera Tuaolo told HBO's "Real Sports" that he was gay. A lot has changed in the game since then.

Back then Tuaolo, who played in Super Bowl XXXIII, said he stayed in hiding for fear he could lose his career. Today, the owners of both the New York Giants and New England Patriots have publicly come out in support of marriage equality.

Back then one-time teammate Sterling Sharpe, in reaction to Tuaolo's news, said an openly gay player wouldn't make it to his next game. Today, Section 1 of the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement reads: "No Discrimination: There will be no discrimination in any form against any player by the Management Council, any Club or by the NFLPA [NFL Players Association] because of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or activity or lack of activity on behalf of the NFLPA."

Over the years I have used my space on this website to chastise the sports world for dragging its collective feet when it comes to the topic of gays and lesbians in sports. But just as I have criticized boldly in the past, I also need to boldly applaud the progress made, particularly in the NFL.

Shortly after the lockout was lifted and the CBA ratified, NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said: "We certainly believe, speaking for the Players Association, that we have a tremendous social and cultural impact. We definitely understand the effect that we have on society and culture, and we feel we have a responsibility to have very high standards. With something like discrimination of any kind, we just want to make sure we are a symbol for good."

There are people who are irritated by columns of this nature because they only want to talk about box scores, and that's fine. Believe it or not, I don't like focusing on the world's problems all the time either.
But it is important to celebrate our victories. And so, for those of us who are interested in the organic intersection of sports, society and politics, this NFL season, this Super Bowl, marks another significant moment in our culture's history to celebrate.

Think about it: Just 10 years ago Tuaolo said he feared for his life. On Sunday, the NFL, in conjunction with the Ad Council and GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), will be broadcasting an anti-discrimination public service announcement outside Lucas Oil Stadium. Imagine, the NFL coming to Indiana -- one of 29 states where it is still legal to fire someone for no other reason than being gay -- and telling the fans attending the biggest game of the year that it is wrong to discriminate.

I would say that's a huge turnaround, and the NFL deserves to take a bow. We in the media love to rip athletes and coaches when they toss out slurs; we should be sure to offer up some love when sports gets it right, and this is one of those moments.

For it's great to say in theory that someone's race or gender or sexual orientation doesn't matter, but it takes steps like the one the NFL has taken to put that theory into practice. I was at the Super Bowl in 2007, when Tony Dungy became the first black coach to win the championship. I have had great talks with Violet Palmer, the first female ref in the NBA. Both individuals succeeded because they were qualified, talented and benefited from leaders who laid the groundwork to help them push past debilitating assumptions and prejudices. They benefited from leaders who were willing to reject flawed thinking. It's hard to imagine -- seeing the record-breaking numbers of rookie Cam Newton -- that conventional wisdom once said blacks were not smart enough to play quarterback.

But that's where we were as a society.

Of course anyone who says anything close to that today looks like a complete moron.
And I'm sure in a few more years we'll look back at Tuaolo's interview, or passages from the autobiography by Dave Kopay -- the first former NFL player to come out -- and wonder why we were such morons on this subject as well. Remember, we once thought women were not strong leaders. Today, three of the past four secretaries of state have been women. We always seem to get there eventually.

True, no active player has come out yet. And I am sure the comment section of this column will be peppered with voices who say they are tired of hearing me and other gay people "whine" about our rights.

But people who believe in equality for all don't whine about rights … they fight for them. For, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle." And it's great to see the NFL working to make that struggle a lot less cumbersome.


LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.