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The NFL embraces LGBTQ+ inclusion ahead of Super Bowl LVI

“LGBTQ athletes need to see more stories of athletes like them supported by their teammates because many are accepted just as they are”

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View of branding during A Night of Pride with GLAAD and NFL on February 10, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for GLAAD)

LOS ANGELES – LGBTQ+ History was made Thursday night atop the National Football League’s Los Angeles headquarters rooftop, overlooking the glittering new SoFi Stadium, site of Super Bowl LVI, as about 150 NFL players, sports professionals and fans mingled with supporters of GLAAD to celebrate the league’s now very public embrace of the LGBTQ+ community.

GLAAD and the National Football League (NFL) hosted ‘A Night of Pride,’ sponsored by Pepsi Stronger Together, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood California.

Jonathan Beane, Senior Vice President, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at National Football League (NFL) welcomed the crowd and minced no words. 

“This is long overdue, isn’t it?” he exclaimed, referring to the league’s commitment to the LGBTQ community. “This (event)  is just the beginning; there’s a lot more that we’re going to do as a league.” 

LGBTQ community icon and LA Dodger Baseball team owner Billy Jean King, the first female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for instance, has been selected as a Legendary Coin Toss Captain on Sunday.

Tennis Icon Billie Jean King and her longtime partner Ilana Kloss.
(Photo courtesy of Major League Baseball Inc/The Los Angeles Dodgers)

“LGBTQ athletes need to see more stories of athletes like them, who are supported by their teammates, because so many of them are accepted, just as they are,” GLAAD Deputy President and COO Darra Gordon said in her remarks. “I hope young LGBTQ athletes see posts from tonight and know that they have a rightful place to be out in the NFL, in football, in sports, and at any cultural milestone they aim for.”

LZ Granderson, host of the ABC News podcast ‘Life Out Loud with LZ Granderson, moderated a discussion of LGBTQ inclusion in the NFL featuring out NFL Legend Ryan O’Callaghan and NFL free agent R.K. Russell, who came out as bi in 2019.

R.K., aka Ryan Russell, who is one of more than 20 players in NFL history to come out as gay or bisexual (with Michael Sam and Carl Nassib, he is one of three to do so before retiring) and O’Callaghan (who played six seasons with the NFL retiring in 2012) tackled the hard stuff.

O’Callaghan says, in his day, he never imagined a moment like this would be possible, “not a chance in hell” that there could ever be such a full on embrace of LGBTQ identity and players by the NFL. 

“Back then” he said, “they didn’t do anything much at all.  Especially not publicly. Up until the last few years, the NFL was absent (on LGBT issues).”

O’Callaghan, who came to the GLAAD event from the prestigious annual NFL Honors awards that bestows MVP Award, Players of the Year, etc, reported significant news of a very public LGBTQ moment.

(L-R) LZ Granderson, R.K. Russell and Ryan O’Callaghan speak onstage during A Night of Pride with GLAAD and NFL on February 10, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
(Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for GLAAD)

During the Honors event, the LGBTQ community was also honored with a video montage of thanks from out gay and bisexual players, honoring Carl Nassib.  

“A few months ago we filmed a piece for the NFL Network for their 360 show talking about LGBTQ in sports and the work of the Trevor Project. They had another player, Michael Irving — his brother is gay — and four us (from the NFL 360 segment) appear (tonight) onstage.”

They received a standing ovation. 

“It was very powerful,” he said, “a big step for the NFL to broadcast that to America.”

“What they did tonight was a whole other step,” O’Callaghan said of the world wide television broadcast.

Moderator Gunderson seized the moment with an obvious question: “Are we done or is this like the Obama moment where we got the Black man in the White House but racism is still hanging around.”

R.K. Russell attends A Night of Pride with GLAAD and NFL on February 10, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for GLAAD)

Russell jumped at the chance to answer, saying “Things are certainly accelerating. As a generation of sports fans, as writers, as journalists, as athletes, we want to see ourselves in the game because we’ve always been there, because  we built this game — honestly.”

“With the Black Lives Matters movement, seeing players really take a stand we know we are more than just these athletes. We are more than these titles. When we step off the field, we take those helmets off, I am a Black man and I am a bi-sexual man. That carries with me everywhere I go. I don’t have to wear a jersey for that.”

“But when I do wear that jersey you need to know that and respect that. You can either ride with me or not,” he said, adding “I think we’re just getting started.”

“But,” moderator Granderson ominously asked, “Where are we going?”

“We’ve got a race issue still in the NFL,” he continued. “If a league that is 70 percent openly Black can’t confront racism issues then how do you think a league that has one openly gay player has addressed its homophobia issues?”

“I think that’s where the community, the writers, people like us keep the league accountable as well,” said Russell. “It’s about holding them accountable and we need to see that from everybody — players, coaches, staff, journalists, fans. Keep the NFL to its word.” 

Russell said that Covid downtime had helped people realize that “surface level, performative” actions are not enough. 

“That’s not going to cut it anymore,” he said. “We want to see Black head coaches, we want to see out players, we want to see it in the media, on the field, we want to see you actually do the things you say you’re going to do.”

Asked if he felt the LGBT highlight moment during the evening’s Honors award was performative or a significant step forward, O’Callaghan said he felt “it was genuinely sincere” and that while it was perhaps the most significant thing the league had done to date, it was not the only thing.

O’Callaghan talked about the league’s sponsorship of New York’s Heritage of Pride and float entries into its parade. “They started with small things like that and doing things on social media and the NFL network, changing the logo during Pride month and sharing that on social media.”

“Now it’s kind of expected.,” O’Callaghan said. “The hardest thing was the first step.”

“Doing what they did tonight at Honors, and this party…I’m sure they will be participating in the parades again this year,” he said.

O’Callaghan pointed out that in 2021 the NFL and the Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill sponsored the National Gay Flag Football Super Bowl in Tempe. “It means the world to have the NFL and a team owner supporting LGBT players and fans,” he said.

Of course the evening was wrapped around the Super Bowl, an event that may champion triumph over adversity but also, famously, a commercial opportunity that has in recent years also found marketers paying millions of dollars for seconds long TV commercials that often celebrate cultural issues.

GLAAD’s Visibility Project, a program dedicated to growing LGBTQ inclusion in advertising, announced today that LGBTQ people and issues will be nearly invisible during Super Bowl LVI ads, with only one ad that expressly features LGBTQ people or issues released prior to the Sunday broadcast. The ad for the Google Pixel 6 features a queer couple.

Additionally, Vrbo will air a LGBTQ-inclusive pre-game ad. In 2020, at least-eleven LGBTQ-inclusive ads from Amazon Alexa, Budweiser, Doritos, HGTV, Microsoft, Olay, Pop Tarts, Sabra, Tide, TurboTax, and Under Armour aired during Super Bowl LIV. In 2021, at least four LGBTQ-inclusive ads from M&M’s, Michelob ULTRA, Logitech, and Paramount + aired during Super Bowl LV. GLAAD will track ads during Super Bowl LVI at GLAAD.org and release a comprehensive list following the game.

(L-R) Deputy President of GLAAD Darra Gordon, Brent Miller, Jari Jones, and GLAAD Head of Talent Anthony Allen Ramos attend A Night of Pride with GLAAD and NFL on February 10, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for GLAAD)

GLAAD Board Chair Pamela Stewart moderated a panel on LGBTQ inclusion in advertising featuring Mohit Jolly, Senior Director of Marketing for the Global Ads Marketing Organization at Google, trans actress model and producer Jari Jones, and Brent Miller, Senior Director for Global LGBTQ Equality at P&G.

P&G’s Miller told the story of an 18 year old youth from North Carolina who sent him a letter praising a 2018 Olympics ad in which out gay Olympic gold medalist Gus Kenworthy’s coming out story was featured, thanking P&G for saving a life. 

“Thank you for saving another soul,” he wrote.  He said “Something as short as an ad can be life changing,” telling the story of a 54 year old man who described a sense of empowerment watching a Pride flag unfold on an Olympic venue mountainside in South Korea. That kind of marketing, Miller said, is “what we’re supposed to do.”

Miller also said he was particularly proud that his work moves not just a younger generation but the generations before them who fought “so hard and now get to see their work come to fruition.” 

Andrew Beaver, an advertising and marketing executive who serviced P&G advertising accounts, agreed with Miller, “I worked with P&G during a time when it wasn’t easy to support our community. They put put their money where their mouth approving LGBT+ inclusive advertising.”

Mojit Jolly, Senior Director for Global Ads Marketing at Google, who grew up in Chandigarh, India, a small, conservative city about five hours north of New Delhi, said he knew early on that something about him was different. “I come from the most intensely conservative background and coming out was not easy.”

He and actress Jari Jones spoke of the necessity for inclusion in marketing and the power of LGBT stories. 

Jones said that images of trans people she was exposed to as a young person had set her back but today’s more authentic representations of people like her have changed her life and the lives of millions of people.

Google, said Jolly, recognizes the power of representation and information to transform our lives and highlighted several tools the mega-powered company provides, including LGBTQ safe spaces and LGBTQ business features on maps worldwide. 

“Every day we reach billions and billions of people and so we have a responsibility,” he said. “I believe our commitments are profound.”

As the event drew to a close, Big Fredia took the stage and opened with her signature song of affirmation and call to be your true color, the aptly named “Big Dick Energy.”

Big Freedia performs onstage during A Night of Pride with GLAAD and NFL on February 10, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for GLAAD)

Guests included out NFL Legend Ryan O’Callaghan as well as LGBTQ leaders and allies including Alyssa Milano, Anthony Bowens, August Getty, Big Freedia, Braunwyn Windham-Burke, Jai Rodriguez, Jari Jones, Jeka Jane, Joey Zauzig, Justin Sylvester, Kent Boyd, LZ Granderson, Mollee Grey, Peter Porte, Philemon Chambers, R.K. Russell, Sonya DeVille, Victoria Brito, Cyd Zeigler, Los Angeles Blade Publisher Troy Masters, Andrew Beaver, GLAAD’s Rich Ferraro and Pamela Stewart, Chair of GLAAD’s Board of Directors.

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Protester with Pride flag disrupts World Cup game

Protest took place during match between Portugal and Uruguay

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(Al Jazeera screenshot)

During a World Cup match between Portugal and Uruguay Monday, a lone protester ran across the field waving a Pride flag moments after the second half kickoff.

Video and still images show the man wearing a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the Superman symbol and the phrase “Save Ukraine” on the front and “Respect for Iranian Woman” on the back.

Screenshot of news coverage at the World Cup 2022 games from Al Jazeera

Qatari security personnel chased him down and then marched him off the playing field. Israeli Public Radio correspondent Amichai Stein tweeted video clips of the incident:

FIFA had no immediate comment on the incident, the Associated Press noted reporting that in the first week of the tournament in Qatar, seven European teams lost the battle to wear multi-colored “One Love” armbands during World Cup matches. Fans also complained they weren’t allowed to bring items with rainbow colors, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, into the stadiums of the conservative Islamic emirate.

Qatar’s laws against homosexuality and treatment of LGBTQ people were flashpoints in the run-up to the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East. Qatar has said everyone was welcome, including LGBTQ fans, but that visitors should respect the nation’s culture.

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Blinken criticizes FIFA threat to fine World Cup team captains with ‘one love’ armbands

Qatar criminalizes homosexuality by death

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday criticized FIFA over its threat to sanction European soccer teams if their captains wore “one love” armbands during the 2022 World Cup.

“It’s always concerning from my perspective when we see any restrictions on freedom of expression. It’s especially so when the expression is for diversity and for inclusion,” Blinken told reporters during a press conference with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani in Doha, the Qatari capital. “And in my judgment, at least, no one on a football pitch should be forced to choose between supporting these values and playing for their team.”

Seven European soccer teams on Monday announced their captains will not wear LGBTQ and intersex armbands during the 2022 World Cup after FIFA threatened to sanction them.

The captains of Belgium, Denmark, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Wales had planned to wear the armbands in support of the LGBTQ and intersex community during the World Cup. The teams on Monday in a joint statement said they would not wear the armbands because FIFA had threatened to sanction them if their captains did.

The World Cup began in Qatar on Sunday.

Qatar is among the handful of countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain punishable by death. A report that Human Rights Watch published last month noted several cases of “severe and repeated beatings” and “sexual harassment” of LGBTQ and intersex people while in police custody from 2019 and September 2022. 

A State Department official last week acknowledged to the Washington Blade that the U.S. raised LGBTQ and intersex rights with the Qatari government ahead of the World Cup.

The U.S. men’s soccer team while in Qatar will have a redesigned logo with the Pride flag in its badge. Blinken attended their match against Wales on Monday.

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European soccer teams won’t wear ‘one love’ armbands after FIFA threatens sanctions

World Cup began in Qatar on Sunday

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Iran plays England during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar on Nov. 21, 2022. (Screenshot via FS1)

Seven European soccer teams on Monday announced their captains will not wear LGBTQ and intersex armbands during the 2022 World Cup after FIFA threatened to sanction them.

The captains of Belgium, Denmark, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Wales planned to wear “one love” armbands during the World Cup. The teams in a joint statement said FIFA threatened to sanction them if their captains wore them.

“We were prepared to pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations and had a strong commitment to wearing the armband. However, we cannot put our players in the situation where they might be booked or even forced to leave the field of play,” read the statement. “We are very frustrated by the FIFA decision, which we believe is unprecedented.”

“As national federations, we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings,” added the statement.

The World Cup began in Qatar on Sunday.

Qatar is among the handful of countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain punishable by death.

Human Rights Watch last month published a report that noted “arbitrary” arrests of LGBTQ and intersex people between 2019 and September 2022 and several cases of “severe and repeated beatings” and “sexual harassment in police custody” during the aforementioned period. World Cup Ambassador Khalid Salman earlier this month described homosexuality as “damage in the mind” during an interview with a German television station.

Peter Tatchell, a British activist, on Oct. 25 protested the country’s LGBTQ and intersex rights record while standing outside the National Museum of Qatar in Doha, the country’s capital. A State Department official on Nov. 18 acknowledged to the Washington Blade that the U.S. raised LGBTQ and intersex rights with the Qatari government ahead of the World Cup.

The U.S. men’s soccer team while in Qatar will have a redesigned logo with the Pride flag in its badge. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will attend their match against Wales on Monday.

England played Iran on Monday. The Netherlands on Monday will play Senegal.

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