A new NFL workplace conduct program emphasizing "LGBT diversity” and barring homophobic slurs kicked off to a big turnout with a session for players and coaches at the headquarters of the Atlanta Falcons.

The “Respect in the Workplace” program aims to quash the league's uber-macho culture. It’s a response to last year’s Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, where players were subjected to virulently homophobic and racist harassment. And it arrives as the NFL welcomes its first openly gay player, new St. Louis Rams draftee Michael Sam.

“We have been looking at this as an opportunity to start the process of changing the culture in locker rooms…[especially] in our era where we have our first openly gay team member,” Robert Gulliver (photo), the NFL’s chief human resources officer, tells Project Q Atlanta. 

“The only way we really get better is if we talk about it,” he adds.

NFL policy already bans LGBT discrimination, but the league is tackling homophobia in other new ways. When the Rams drafted Sam in May, the NFL brought in Wade Davis, executive director of the LGBT athletes organization You Can Play Project, to consult with the team. Davis is a former NFL player who came out as gay after he retired.

Then there’s the Respect in the Workplace program, which involves Gulliver and various ex-player “ambassadors” traveling to all 32 teams for a facilitated discussion of appropriate workplace behavior. Davis was among the consultants who trained Gulliver and the ambassadors.

“We talk about language that is not acceptable in our workplace – the locker room, the playing field, the offices, anywhere,” Gulliver says. That includes words that “are racist, are homophobic, are sexist, and are inconsistent with our values.”

The core of the program is the league’s new “Excellence in Workplace Conduct” policy, which declares a fundamental right to an abuse-free work environment. Reading aloud from the policy, Gulliver notes that it stresses, “harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation are contrary to our values.”

For the first session on June 2, Gulliver and two ambassadors – ex-Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney and former Jaguar Donovin Darius – headed to the Falcons offices and practice facility in Flowery Branch. The turnout was huge, Gulliver says, and included “all of the players and the full coaching staff,” more than 100 strong at this point in the pre-season. Not seated among the group? Cornerback Asante Samuel, a player so afraid of the gays that he wouldn't let his kids near them. The Falcons dropped Samuel from their roster in February. Contrast that with Sean Weatherspoon, a Falcons linebacker and former college roommate of Sam who says he's just fine with gay teammates. 

During the session with the Falcons, LGBT respect “was a point of emphasis. It was a point that was reinforced,” Gulliver says.

But, citing the league’s desire for keeping exact discussions confidential, Gulliver declined to discuss what any Falcons players had to say about homophobia, gay issues or even whether they talked at all or just listened. The Falcons did not respond to questions from Project Q.

“In general, I would say there’s broad acknowledgement we live in a different time and need to change with the times,” Gulliver says. “My observation was that the message was accepted. My understanding is, our players get it.”

He added that the NFL event followed the Falcons’ own internal team discussions about good workplace conduct.

“Their head coach [Mike Smith] has been driving those messages. Their owner [Arthur Blank] has been driving those messages,” Gulliver says.

Earlier this year, Blank and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff both expressed interest in Sam, with Blank adding that it's up to the team to make gay jocks "part of our culture."