Openly gay ex-player talks to NFL rookies on diversity

Updated: June 27, 2006, 1:39 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

As part of this week's 10th annual rookie symposium, an event aimed at preparing draft choices for life in the NFL on and off the field, the league arranged for experts in and out the game to address young players on issues ranging from financial planning to social relationships to dealing with the media.

"I think a lot of guys were shocked at what [Tuaolo] had to tolerate at times. This went way beyond our normal 'well, we're an equal opportunity employer' discussion of diversity that we might have had in the past."
NFL official Mike Haynes

And, for the first time ever, on what it is like to be a gay man playing professional football.

Former defensive tackle Esera Tuaolo, who in 2002, three years after his retirement from the NFL, revealed that he is gay, was part of the panel in Monday evening's discussion with rookies highlighting diversity in the league. The diversity segments of the program, with the 255 choices from this year's draft divided into four groups, lasted 30 minutes.

League vice president of player and employee development Mike Haynes hopes the message delivered by Tuaolo and others resonates much longer.

"When I took the job four years ago," Haynes said Tuesday, "one of the things I wanted to really stress was tolerance. And that takes on a lot of forms, from tolerating the kind of music that's maybe being played in the locker room, to the way a guy dresses, or even what part of the country he is from. And so this was just a natural step in the evolution."

Haynes' goal, he said, wasn't so much to have Tuaolo discuss being gay as to deal with the more general themes of diversity of tolerance. But given the attention that Tuaolo has received since his 2002 revelation, the issue, naturally, was raised. As has been the case in his public discussions on the matter, and in his new book, Tuaolo spoke candidly. And, Haynes said, the rookie audiences listened attentively.

Tuaolo, who played for five different teams in nine seasons and who retired after the 1999 campaign, could not be immediately reached for comment.

"I think a lot of guys were shocked at what [Tuaolo] had to tolerate at times," Haynes said during a break in the symposium, which is being held near San Diego. "This went way beyond our normal 'well, we're an equal opportunity employer' discussion of diversity that we might have had in the past. Esera was great. He talked, for instance, about the kind of language that might be used in the locker room and about how, no matter the intent, it could be hurtful to some people. He made some terrific points."

Tuaolo, 37, a few years ago addressed league officials on the subjects of diversity and tolerance and, in a subsequent meeting, Haynes asked if the former defensive tackle would be interested at some juncture in being a part of the rookie symposium. This year, Tuaolo's schedule permitted him to appear.

The timing was only coincidental but, coming in the wake of remarks made last week by Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, the appearance of Tuaolo was particularly pertinent.

"I think it does make it a more timely issue," Haynes said. "I don't want to speak for baseball, but what happened [with Guillen] probably demonstrates that we all still have some work to be done in terms of the tolerance issue in general. Hopefully, with Esera being here, our league took another step forward."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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