Inclusion, diversity, less hate, and more love. These are the word and phrases are on everyone’s lips this Super Bowl season, including out former NFL player Esera Tuaolo. He spent nine years playing professional football including with Falcons in the 1998 Super Bowl, all while never being able to be open with his identity as a gay man. This drove him to spark change and bridge the gap between the LGBTQ community and professional sports.
“Ever since I came out in 2000, I always wanted to bridge the gap between the profession I was in and the people that I love,” Tuaolo told Georgia Voice. This bridge comes in the form of his annual Super Bowl Inclusion Party, hosted through his non-profit, Hate is Wrong.
Even while being closeted in the NFL, Esera never let hate slide. Years ago, he came up with the phrase, “hate in any form is wrong,” using it to combat discriminatory locker room talk – whether sexist, racist, or homophobic. The expression ultimately transformed into his non-profit to end bullying and discrimination last year.
Tuaolo’s first Super Bowl Inclusion Party was held last year in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The event was groundbreaking, the first of its kind.
“I wanted to create a presence for the LGBTQ community during the Super Bowl because before, we never had a presence there,” Esera said. “[I also wanted to] get the word of inclusion and diversity out there, and to break down the stereotypes of what a gay man looks like or what an athlete looks like. Many times, it’s difficult to put the two together.”
Not only did this party create a safe and celebratory space for LGBTQ people, but 100 percent of the money raised went directly to local anti-bullying and diversity organizations.
“We’re not coming in for profit… We’re raising money to give money,” the football star said. “None of us get paid, including myself. We come because we love the LGBTQ community and we love what we do.”
Last year’s party in Minneapolis raised $30,000 for Avenues for Homeless Youth and the National Pacer Organization. This year, the party followed the Super Bowl into Atlanta where proceeds went to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights’ LGBTQ Institute, based in Atlanta.
According to the gay activist, the difference between the NFL when he played back in the 90s and now is “like night and day.” Tuaolo accredits this difference and the more inclusive environment to education.
“Back then, it was very difficult. If I came out, I probably would’ve lost my job; I probably would’ve had a bounty on me,” he said. “Every time the topic of homosexuality came up when I was playing, it was always negative and violent.”
He says the atmosphere has changed because of several key players in sports taking the step to come out of the closet and live their authentic lives. It’s sparked a conversation on how the LGBTQ community and sports can coexist together. It was this emphasis on education as a force for change that inspired Tuaolo to introduce an Inclusion Panel to his Super Bowl event. He says he’s tired of talking about the problem of LGBTQ exclusion – he wants to find a solution.
“We’ve been talking about the problem for the longest time. What is the next step? What can we do to move forward with this?” he asked. “I’m hoping to get that with this panel.”
This year’s panel focused on the efforts of sports-affiliated corporations, non-profits, and athletes, as well as the NFL itself, in making professional sports more LGBTQ-inclusive. Of these groups, he mentioned the efforts of Adidas, a major sponsor for his event.
“They’re dedicated to inclusion and diversity; they’re breaking down stereotypes, and they’re empowering youth through the athletes they sign,” he said. “They sign amazing athletes that want to make a difference in the world. They choose athletes that do it for the cause, and that’s who Adidas chooses to represent.”
However, he hopes his events spark change not only one day of the year but year-round. “I’m hoping people will continue to educate themselves and others not just during the Inclusion Party but throughout the year,” he said. “Let’s rally, let’s push the envelope, let’s find answers and solutions instead of talking about the problem. Let’s come together and support each other.”