Leveling the playing field

Esera Tuaolo played for five teams in his nine-year career as a nose guard in the National Football League. After being drafted 35th overall in 1991, Tuaolo played for the Green Bay Packers, the Carolina Panthers, the Minnesota Vikings, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and played in Super Bowl XXXIII with the Atlanta Falcons. In his prime, Tuaolo was 280 pounds and could run 40 yards in 4.8 seconds. He retired in 1999. He is gay.

While playing football, Tuaolo wanted to kill himself. He drank shot after shot of tequila every night before going to sleep to drown his troubles. He recently told HBO in an interview for Real Sports that he sunk further and further into depression. He retired, not because of an injury but because his sexual preference is not acceptable in male professional sports. He was forced to decide on continuing with the lie he had lived with for years, or to quit the sport he loved and move on with his life. He now lives with his partner of six years and has adopted twin children. His life since leaving football is a success story, but it was a tragedy just three years ago.

There is an important lesson to be learned from athletes like Tuaolo. I say athletes like him because there are more, we just don’t know of them yet. Homosexuals have become relatively accepted in our society. There are, of course, still fights to be fought, but enormous progress has been made in virtually every area of our culture. Every area, that is, except male team sports.

Women’s sports have gone further than to simply accept homosexuals. Gay women athletes are encouraged just as all women are to play sports. Men, on the other hand, are told sports aren’t meant for them if they are attracted to their own sex. Male sports are too macho for homosexuals. For whatever reason, men cannot foresee playing for a team and showering in a locker room with a gay man, yet women don’t seem to have a problem with this.

Last year the editor of Out magazine, a national publication for homosexuals, wrote that he was dating a nationally known baseball player on a team on the east coast. This summer Mike Piazza, the All-Star catcher of the New York Mets, went to great lengths to disprove a news story that reported he was gay. He feared being ostracized from the sport he loves.

Both Piazza’s and Tuaolo’s sagas prove the intolerability of homosexuals in male team sports. It should be noted, however, that it is only a matter of time before a major athlete comes out while he is still on the field.

When he does, it will be monumental. The player will be hated. He will be yelled at, taunted and abused by members of his league, city and even his own team. If it is baseball, pitchers will throw at him and players will spike him with their cleats as they slide into a base. If this sounds familiar it’s because the same thing happened 55 years ago when a black man tried to play white baseball. I would never argue that a gay athlete coming out of the closet today would be the same as Jackie Robinson playing first base in 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but for the gay community, it would have a similar impact. The most obvious difference is that there was no way for Robinson to hide who he was. Tuaolo played for nine seasons in front of five different cities and was on national television every Sunday and we only found out he was gay last week.

It is also true that the civil rights movement had not even begun when Robinson took the field. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine and the bus boycott were still a decade away when Branch Rickey signed Robinson. We have no laws prohibiting homosexuals from drinking in all water fountains or eating at restaurants. For all these reasons it will be easier for the first gay male athlete than it was for Robinson, but the announcement will still be historic. Gay people are becoming more comfortable with their homosexuality in everyday life, yet we have still not found a way to make them feel invited in male sports.

The case of Esera Tuaolo should be a wake-up call to everyone involved with sports, including fans. If we want our sports culture to be as pure as we claim it is, we need to understand that Tuaolo played football as well as any heterosexual at his position. We think homosexuals don’t have a place in our world of helmet-to-helmet hits, pitchers of beer and cheerleaders. In reality, we are weakening our games by limiting who can play them. For sports fans that are too intolerant and stubborn to accept homosexuals, look at it from the perspective of the game. Football lost a great player when Tuaolo retired and will lose more if it doesn’t shape up.

From Jackie Robinson to Title IX, sports have been a part of our culture we look at to pave the way for civil liberties. We accept homosexuals in our classrooms, on our buses and as our friends, but not as our athletes. We need someone to step up right now and carry the torch when it comes to homosexuality as well.