The big news is not only that Carl Nassib, a 6-foot-7, 275-pound defensive lineman for the Las Vegas Raiders, has become the first active NFL player to come out as gay, but also that the announcement was met with either justifiable celebration or — and this is nearly as important — a shrug.
Nassib’s announcement matters, of course. It took courage, which is why we had to wait so long for the first player to come out in the macho world that is professional football. You don’t have to be a stat head to know that there are many gay professional athletes, nearly all of them still closeted. It has been assumed by most professional athletes that coming out bears a significant cost, which is why most who do wait until after they’ve retired.
So yes, it still takes courage, even in 2021, even in an era in which same-sex marriages are now commonplace and, amazingly, have become widely accepted, to come out in any part of our world. But Nassib knew what he was doing. He was representing. He was letting every bullied gay kid know that his or her dreams can be as wild and fantastic as any other kid’s. It’s the same message that Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Megan Rapinoe, Sue Bird and other women have been advocating for years.
In Nassib’s Instagram post, which begins, “What’s up, people,” he said, “I just wanted to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, but I finally feel comfortable enough to get it off my chest.”
He went on to say, “I’m a pretty private person, so I hope you guys know that I’m really not doing this for attention. I just think that representation and visibility are so important. I actually hope that one day, videos like this and the whole coming out process are just not necessary. But until then, I’m going to do my best and do my part to cultivate a culture that’s accepting, that’s compassionate and I’m going to start by donating $100,000 to The Trevor Project.”
The Trevor Project is a resource that offers suicide prevention services and crisis intervention for LGBTQ youth. According to announcement from The Trevor Project, more than 1.8 million LGBTQ young people seriously consider suicide each year. Let’s hope that Nassib’s announcement is an important step in encouraging other athletes to come forward and, more to the point, that a greater level of acceptance follows.
For Nassib, the timing could not be better. This is the time of the activist athlete, of the Black Lives Matter athlete. If Black Lives Matter, so, too, must LGBTQ lives.
If taking a knee matters, so does taking any stand for justice.
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If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could say that he maybe should have listened to Colin Kaepernick a few years ago, it is no surprise that he issued a statement saying how proud he was of Nassib.
If hateful rhetoric — now the big non-issue is trans people and bathrooms, just as it used to be gay soldiers and fox holes — is on the rise, particularly against Asian Americans and Jewish people, Nassib’s statement calling for tolerance matters.
It was not so long ago that Michael Sam, an All-America defensive end from Missouri, announced that he was gay. The announcement stunned the football world. Some NFL executives were quoted, anonymously of course, that drafting Sam would be a “distraction” or, worse, a “character issue.” One executive, also anonymously, told Sports Illustrated, “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
That was 2014, not quite a decade ago, and here’s a prediction that this time there won’t be any whispered anonymous quotes from NFL executives, which isn’t to say there isn’t anti-gay bias in the locker room or in the executive suites. Of course, there is and there will continue to be, just as there is and will be in the stands. But if an NFL player or executive admits his bigotry out loud, there would be consequences.
In Sam’s case, there was a question whether he’d be drafted. He was, but not until the late rounds by the then-St. Louis Rams. He was not highly rated before he came out as gay, but the question remains whether he got a fair shot. When Sam was cut by the Rams, there was a report that Goodell made calls around the league to help find Sam a place on a team’s practice squad. The Cowboys did take Sam, but he never made it to the NFL. He played briefly in the Canadian Football League and then retired.
Was it the fact that Sam had come out or was it that he just wasn’t quite good enough? The thing is, it’s all but impossible to know. There were many years, of course, when few Black players were quarterbacks. Was that racism or something else? Well, if you need an answer, look at how many Black quarterbacks there are now.
Jason Collins, who came out in 2013 near the end of a long NBA career, played briefly the next season for the Brooklyn Nets, becoming the first publicly gay player in one of America’s four major professional team sports. For doing so, he would be listed in 2014 as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
Collins was thrilled by Nassib’s announcement, telling the Los Angeles Times, “As professional athletes, we’re used to inspiring the next generation, people who are younger than us. But he’s going to find that his actions have inspired not only people who are younger than him but older than him.”
Jared Polis, the nation’s first elected openly gay governor, was sufficiently inspired to tweet, “It’s about time. While many retired NFL players have come out, today Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. While it doesn’t make me like the Raiders any more (go Denver Broncos!), this sends a powerful message to the next generation of athletes that it’s ok to be true to who we are. Carl Nassib’s honesty and courage helps open the door for professional team sports to everyone.”
When Sam came out as gay, I wrote the simple truth that once it becomes clear that the bigot is the one who isn’t welcome, only then does everything change. That’s the bet — and a good bet, I think — that Carl Nassib makes today.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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