A gay NFL player broke a barrier. Will others follow?

By Emmanuel Morgan

Congratulatory posts flooded social media on Monday when Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib announced on Instagram that he is gay, becoming the first active NFL player to do so.

Jerseys and T-shirts bearing his name were the top sellers among all NFL players on Monday, according to Fanatics, the league’s e-commerce partner. Stars like New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley — who played with Nassib at Penn State — and Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt quickly voiced their support for Nassib on Twitter. Well-known advocacy organizations praised his declaration as monumental.

“I think people are going to see what I’ve seen for years, that sports are a lot more accepting than people give it credit for,” said Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports, a news website that covers LGBTQ athletes and issues in sports.

Yet Nassib said in his post that he had “agonized” over the decision to go public about his sexuality, after keeping it to himself for 15 years. That he is the only active player who is publicly out in one of the four major American men’s pro sports leagues suggests the height of the barrier that male athletes face openly acknowledging a gender or sexual identity that doesn’t conform with those traditionally tolerated in locker rooms.

Other gay athletes who have gone public with their sexuality have said they felt pressured to suppress it — and may still despite currents in society shifting to more acceptance — for simple yet powerfully prohibitive reasons. In locker rooms, on fields and on courts, male athletes are taught to embrace heteronormative standards of masculinity.

“I think it’s men and the machismo culture that pro sports are played, in particular,” that has inhibited men who identify as gay, bisexual or queer from coming out, said Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

Still, some male athletes ventured to do so despite concerns about their safety and backlash from teammates and fans. In February 2014, the NBA became the first of the four major American sports leagues to have an openly gay active player when Jason Collins, who had come out publicly the previous spring, joined the Brooklyn Nets. He retired from playing later that year.

Michael Sam, who had been an All-American selection during his college career as a defensive end at Missouri, announced that he is gay weeks ahead of Collins’ signing, in the lead-up to that year’s NFL draft. The Rams selected him in the seventh, and last round, and an overjoyed Sam cried and kissed his boyfriend on national TV in one of the most visible displays of gay male sexuality in the history of sports.

But the Rams cut Sam before the end of training camp. The Dallas Cowboys then signed Sam to their practice squad, but he did not play in a regular season game. He retired from football in 2015.

The momentum for other gay male NFL athletes to come out while they were still playing may have dwindled when Sam’s career fizzled out before it began. Nassib’s announcement may have been more readily accepted — publicly, at least — among his peers because he is already a dependable veteran.

Nassib has already played five seasons in the NFL and has kept a relatively low profile at an unglamorous, but important, position. Drafted by the Cleveland Browns, he has appeared in 73 games, starting in 37 of them while recording 143 tackles.

Being labeled a “distraction” has long been a stigma assigned to players who espoused any view or identity that stood out from their teammates, but there’s an upside to Nassib’s increased fame, Zeigler said. His visibility could offer more chances to discuss topics surrounding LGBTQ athletes.

“Tons of people are going to be talking about this over the next couple of days, then again when he shows up for his first game and then again when he intercepts the ball and runs it back for a touchdown,” Zeigler said. “Teams and players can handle a couple of extra cameras. This will be here for a while.”

Men’s pro teams in America have lagged behind women’s, where LGBTQ stars in team and individual sports have publicly identified themselves and still been celebrated. WNBA stars Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne are among the league’s current players who have come out as lesbian and Layshia Clarendon, who openly identifies as transgender and nonbinary, in January became the league’s first player to have a top surgery while active.

The outspoken U.S. Women’s National Team soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who is engaged to the WNBA’s Sue Bird, said after a Women’s World Cup match in 2019 that “you can’t win a championship without gays on your team.” That year’s World Cup included more than three dozen players and coaches who are gay, in fact, and the winning United States team had at least one couple among its members.

In the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the highest-caliber mixed martial arts promotion, the best female fighter of all time, Amanda Nunes, is an out lesbian.

In contrast to LGBTQ male athletes, their out peers in women’s American sports leagues have enjoyed more acceptance from the public and from their heterosexual teammates in recent years. Rapinoe and Bird are among the most popular and marketable female athletes in the world. In Nunes’ last fight in March, she brought her infant child and fiancée inside the octagon after defeating her opponent.

There are signs of Americans’ growing acceptance of LGBTQ people, a cultural shift that may encourage other gay, bisexual and queer male athletes to come out publicly. This year, 70% of respondents in a Gallup poll said they support same-sex marriage, a 10% jump from 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled that all states must recognize those unions. Nearly 6% of respondents in a 2020 Gallup poll identified as LGBTQ, a 1% jump from 2017.

It may take longer for that sea change to erode homophobic attitudes in male sports leagues, particularly the NFL. Players have previously faced backlash for offensive comments, some made in the immediate aftermath of a high-profile athlete publicly identifying as gay.

Former Miami Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace posted on Twitter after Collins’ announcement in 2013 that he didn’t understand why with “all these beautiful women in the world and guys want to mess with other guys.” Wallace later apologized and deleted the post.

Lapchick, who has studied gender and hiring practices in major sports leagues for over 25 years, noted football’s changing cultural landscape. “If you told me five years ago that the NFL and individual teams would use hearts in their communications, I wouldn’t have guessed that,” he said. “Especially among men, there was a fear of coming out, and he broke that fear. I think the reaction will show other NFL players that they can do this, too.”

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