The N.F.L.'s Carl Nassib Broke a Barrier. Will Others Follow?

The N.F.L.'s Carl Nassib Broke a Barrier. Will Others Follow?

- in Football

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 N.F.L. player to do so.

Jerseys and T-shirts bearing his name were the top sellers among all N.F.L. players on Monday, according to Fanatics, the league’s e-commerce partner. Stars like 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 L.G.B.T.Q. 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 N.B.A. 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 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’s signing, in the lead-up to that year’s N.F.L. 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.

Intermittently, a handful of other notable male professional athletes made announcements about their sexuality throughout the years only after their sports careers had ended. But in the mid-aughts the stream of male former players to publicly come out as gay quickened, seeming to herald a shift in sporting culture. Athletes like the former N.B.A. player John Amaechi (2007) and retired N.F.L. players Wade Davis (2012) and Kwame Harris (2013) publicly announced that they are gay in memoirs, magazine cover articles and, in Harris’s case, in a CNN interview.

Major League Soccer has had two active openly gay players — Robbie Rogers, who came out in 2013, and Collin Martin, who did so in 2018.

In Major League Baseball, Glenn Burke, an outfielder who spent four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics in the 1970s, is known as the first player in major league history to come out to his teammates during his career. He came out publicly in 1982, three years after his last major league game. Burke, who died of AIDS complications in 1995, was supported by some teammates but was largely met with discrimination.

The momentum for other gay male N.F.L. 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 N.F.L. 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 L.G.B.T.Q. 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.”

According to Taylor Carr, chief of staff at Athlete Ally, an advocacy organization for L.G.B.T.Q. athletes, that could owe to a greater sense of camaraderie in women’s sports brought on by other collective social fights. Female athletes have for decades fought for equal pay, and the W.N.B.A. prominently led in many social justice causes, including a successful campaign by Atlanta Dream players to oust the team’s owner, the Republican former senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, after she opposed the Black Lives Matter movement the league’s teams were supporting.

“When you have all of these people in women’s athletics who are sending very clear signals about what they believe, it makes you feel like ‘I have the ability to compete and live as my personal self,’” Carr said. “I am not just an athlete, I can bring my entire self to the court.”

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