Paul Tagliabue says his interest in fighting homophobia is “intensely personal.” He became commissioner of the National Football League the same year he learned his son was gay.
Drew Tagliabue, a junior at Amherst College at the time, told his parents, “I’m going from being a member of an upper middle-class family to a member of the most hated group in America,” Tagliabue recalled. But today, 23 years later, things are different. “Where we are today is really positive, partly because of what you’re all doing here at Bowdoin, and what’s going at other schools and other institutions,” Tagliabue said to a packed audience of mostly students Monday night.
Tagliabue was visiting Bowdoin to speak at the annual “Anything but Straight in Athletics” event, organized by Bowdoin’s athletic department and the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. Prior to giving a talk in the Kresge auditorium, Tagliabue had joined student athletes for dinner in Daggett Lounge. There he listened to other intensely personal stories from students and coaches about their experiences with homophobia, as well as with tolerance, on Bowdoin sports teams.
In his talk, Tagliabue referred to the dinner several times. “The beautiful thing I heard tonight is that [students] are anxious about being leaders and want to be leaders and want to find out how to lead on these issues [of strengthening tolerance in sports],” he said. The sophomore athletes who attended the pre-talk dinner were all selected by their coaches based on their future leadership potential. At the dinner, they discussed ways to make their team cultures more welcoming to LGBTQ players.
Tagliabue, who was commissioner of the NFL from 1989 to 2006, has made gay rights a priority. He and his wife last October endowed the LGBTQ Resource Center at Tagliabue’s alma mater, Georgetown University, with a $1 million gift. Tagliabue described this act as “a way of making a statement, to say this center is a priority and it’s permanent.”
While he acknowledged that the environment for gays and lesbians is better than it was when his son came out, he urged the audience to continue defending the gay and lesbian community by speaking up, supporting equality and coming out as allies. He said civil rights atrophy if people don’t keep asserting them.
Quoting Martin Luther King, Tagliabue continued: “Whatever career you may choose for yourself — doctor, lawyer, teacher — let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life. It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher. It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can. It will give you that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man. Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for human rights.”
When Tagliabue began working for the NFL, no one was talking about the racial or homophobic language used by players and coaches, Tagliabue said. But he added, “They are now.” Thanks to efforts by high-ranking sports officials, such as NBA Commissioner David Stern who last year fined Kobe Bryant $100,000 for using homophobic slurs on court, Tagliabue said, “There’s been a substantial shift in major sports’ conduct and language.”
At the same time, the NFL is still often perceived as a homophobic institution, Tagliabue acknowledged. But he said the idea that football is a testosterone-fueled, macho sport is false. “It’s not about power and force and domination; it’s about skill and speed and intelligence,” he said.
Toward the end of his talk, Tagliabue again lauded Bowdoin’s efforts to combat homophobia on campus. He said these efforts make a welcoming environment not just for current students, but also for former ones. “Another powerful thing about your initiatives at Bowdoin and elsewhere is they are giving power and dignity to five generations of alumni,” he said. “These people are coming out in droves.”