Carl Nassib: The Reluctant Pioneer

Make a note of the date: Monday 21 June 2021. That was the day when Carl Nassib, a defensive end with the Las Vegas Raiders, announced that he is gay, and the genie was finally released from the bottle.

Thankfully, for many people around the world, coming out as homosexual is an increasingly normal part of everyday life. And on the surface, Nassib’s one-minute video on Instagram had a casual informality about it. He began:    

“What’s up, people. 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 finally feel comfortable getting it off my chest.”

Unlike other walks of life – entertainment, politics, business – the closet has remained firmly locked in the testosterone-fuelled world of US pro football. This is a land where ultra-masculine stereotypes reign supreme and gender identity is taboo, creating an uncomfortable contrast to the leading role that football played in promoting racial integration. So, while it shouldn’t have been, Nassib’s announcement actually was headline news.

Jeff Bottari – AP Photo

It’s taken till now – 101 years after the league was formed – for a current NFL player to publicly and proudly declare that they’re gay. The nearest we got was Michael Sam, who came out after being drafted by the St Louis Rams in 2014 but was cut before the season began.

A few others came out once they’d retired. Players like Wade Davis III, who eventually became the NFL’s first LGBTQ+ inclusion consultant; Ryan Russell, the former Cowboys, Bucs and Bills DE who remained unsigned having announced he was bisexual in 2019; and Ryan Callaghan, the Patriots and Chiefs offensive tackle who contemplated suicide, tormented by the prejudice that prevented him from speaking out during his career.

Legendary quarterback Warren Moon, one of many – JJ Watt, Derek Carr and Saquon Barkley among them – to share messages of support and encouragement, also stated that he knew several players who were gay but they didn’t feel they could say anything. So, make no bones about it: with around 1,700 active players in the NFL at any one time, this is a big deal. As Callaghan stated in 2019, “I think it’s safe to say there’s at least someone on every team who is either gay or bisexual. But a lot of guys still see it as potentially having a negative impact on their career.”

And there’s the rub. Nassib himself agonised for 15 years before he felt able to make his statement. Hiding his sexuality has taken a toll, as he battled with addiction and depression. But having made the decision to come out, it took just 58 seconds on social media to potentially change the landscape of the NFL for good.

Of course, every individual wants to be open about who they really are, and it’s great that the 28-year-old, with the support of family, friends, teammates, coaches and others, finally feels able to. The reception to his video has been overwhelmingly positive and his #94 jersey has suddenly become a best-seller.

It’s a massive step for Nassib personally but as a prominent professional athlete, he’s also been thrown into the role of ambassador and spokesperson. Willingly or not, he’ll be fighting for equality and acceptance, and paving the way so that others might feel more comfortable about their own gender identity.

At 6’7” and 275lb, the defensive linesman definitely has broad shoulders but I hope he doesn’t feel he should carry the hopes and expectations of the LGBTQ+ community on them. For now, he’ll be out there on his own, exposed to naïve questions from unenlightened journalists, subtle jibes from opposing players looking for an edge and not-so-subtle comments from uneducated bigots in the stands. Being the first in your sport – ever – to deliberately put yourself under that particular spotlight takes courage and conviction. 

“I’m a pretty private person so I hope you guys know that I’m not doing this for attention. I just think that representation and visibility are so important.”

Given that about 5.5% of the US adult population identify as LGBTQ+, there must be dozens, maybe hundreds, of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender sports stars who haven’t declared their sexuality. It really shouldn’t matter one way or the other – and to most of us, it doesn’t – but in the binary world of sport, it still seems to be an issue. That must be a heavy burden to carry around every day so, if Nassib’s actions empower even just a handful to come out, then more power to him.

Nassib’s statement, made during Pride Month, was doubly impactful because it coincided with Kumi Yokoyama, a Japanese player in the National Women’s Soccer League in the US, revealing that they are transgender – an identity not legally recognised in Japan. Both Nassib and Yokoyama were commended by US President Joe Biden, who tweeted that “countless kids around the world are seeing themselves in a new light tonight”.

AP Photo – Alex Gallardo

Nassib’s $100,000 donation to The Trevor Project, the leading suicide-prevention service for LGBTQ+ youth in America, is also a vital step in raising awareness. Young people in the LGBTQ+ community are five times more likely than their straight friends to consider suicide, but just one accepting adult can decrease that risk by 40%. Thanks to the former Browns and Buccaneers player, many more adults across the United States will make that choice now, and save lives in the process.  

So what about the NFL? Well, the organisation matched Nassib’s donation to The Trevor Project so kudos for that. But I sincerely hope that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s swift support wasn’t just lip-service. Nassib has made the first move; now his team and the league need to support him, and those who have yet to raise their hand or their voice.

Football has been gifted an unprecedented opportunity to catch up with other areas of society. It’s a chance to extinguish the misogynistic and homophobic discourse that permeates the locker-room, the bleachers and the sports bars. The fact that no current NFL player has come out until now shows how deeply ingrained that culture must be. Education, information and communication will be vital in creating an environment where players feel they can be open about who they are, and the league must take the lead.

“I hope that one day, videos like this and the whole coming out process, are not necessary but until then, I will do my best and my part to cultivate a culture that’s accepting and compassionate.”

I also hope that his request for some personal space is respected but after that, can we just get on with it? No references to “Carl Nassib, gay footballer” please, just “Carl Nassib, Raiders defensive end”. Then hopefully, another player will join him. Then another. And another. The more who embrace and share their true selves, the less of a big deal it will be.

By his own admission, Nassib doesn’t want the limelight. He just wants to be honest with himself, and to help those on the same journey. And let’s not forget, we all have the chance to engage, educate and inform those around us when the topic arises.

So maybe we’re a step closer to the day when an NFL player coming out isn’t headline news. Carl Nassib has made the first crack in the dam that is homophobia, prejudice and ignorance in the NFL and one day, that dam is going to break.

Featured image: Getty

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