The N.F.L.’s Carl Nassib Broke a Barrier. Will Others Follow?
Congratulatory messages flooded social media on Monday when Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib posted on Instagram that he was 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 Giants running back Saquon Barkley – who played with Nassib at Penn State – and Arizona Cardinals defensive end JJ Watt were quick to express their support for Nassib on Twitter. Well-known advocacy organizations have called his statement monumental.
“I think people are going to see what I’ve seen for years, that the sport is a lot more tolerant than you think,” said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports, a news site which covers LGBTQ athletes and issues in sport.
Still, Nassib said in his post that he was “agonized” over the decision to go public with his sexuality, after keeping it to himself for 15 years. That he is the only active player to participate publicly in one of America’s four major men’s sports leagues suggests the height of the barrier male athletes face in openly acknowledging a gender or gender identity that does not conform to these. traditionally tolerated in locker rooms.
Other gay athletes who have made their sexuality public have said they felt compelled to suppress it – and still may despite currents in society moving towards greater acceptance – for simple but powerfully prohibitive reasons. In locker rooms, on the fields and on the courts, male athletes are taught to embrace heteronormative norms of masculinity.
“I think it was the men and the macho culture in which professional sports are played, in particular,” that have kept men who identify as gay, bisexual or queer from coming out, said Richard Lapchick, director of the ‘Institute for Diversity and Ethics at Sport.
Still, some male athletes have ventured to do so despite concerns about their safety and the reactions of their teammates and fans. In February 2014, the NBA became the first of America’s Big Four sports leagues to have an active, openly gay 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 he was gay weeks before Collins was signed, in the run-up to the NFL Draft this year. year. The Rams selected him in the seventh and final round, and an elated Sam cried and hugged her boyfriend on national television in one of the most visible manifestations of gay male sexuality in sports history.
But the Rams cut Sam before training camp was over. The Dallas Cowboys then signed Sam to their practice squad, but he didn’t play in a regular season game. He retired from football in 2015.
On and off, a handful of other notable male professional athletes have made announcements about their sexuality over the years just after their athletic careers ended. But by mid-year, the stream of former male players coming out publicly as gay picked up, appearing to herald a shift in sports culture. Athletes like former NBA player John Amaechi (2007) and retired NFL players Wade Davis (2012) and Kwame Harris (2013) have publicly announced that they are gay in memoir, cover articles by magazine and, in Harris’ case, in an interview with CNN.
Major League Soccer has had two openly active gay players – Robbie Rogers, who released in 2013, and Collin Martin, who released in 2018.
In Major League Baseball, Glenn Burke, an outfielder who spent four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics in the 1970s, is known as the first player in major league history to show off. to his teammates during his career. It was released publicly in 1982, three years after its last major league game. Burke, who died of complications from AIDS in 1995, was supported by some teammates but was widely discriminated against.
The momentum for other gay male NFL athletes to come out while they were still playing may have waned when Sam’s career died out before he started. Nassib’s announcement may have been more readily accepted – at least publicly – among his peers, as he is already a reliable veteran.
Nassib has already played five seasons in the NFL and has kept a relatively low profile in an unglamorous, but important position. Drafted by the Cleveland Browns, he’s appeared in 73 games, starting in 37 of them while recording 143 tackles.
Being labeled a “distraction” has long been a stigma attributed to players who espoused an opinion or identity that stood out from their teammates, but there is an advantage to Nassib’s growing fame, Zeigler said. Its visibility could provide more opportunities to discuss topics surrounding LGBTQ athletes.
“Tons of people are going to be talking about it over the next few days, then again when he shows up for his first game, and then again when he intercepts the ball and brings it back for a touchdown,” said Zeigler. “Teams and players can handle a few more cameras. It will be here for a while.
Men’s professional teams in America have lagged behind the women, where LGBTQ stars in team and individual sports have publicly identified and are still celebrated. WNBA stars Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne are among current league players who have proven to be lesbians and Layshia Clarendon, who openly identifies as transgender and non-binary, in January became the first female player in the league. the league to undergo surgery while active.
United States Women’s National Team soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who is engaged to WNBA’s Sue Bird, said after a 2019 Women’s World Cup game that “you can’t win a championship. without gays in your team “. That year’s World Cup featured more than three dozen gay players and coaches, and the winning team from the United States had at least a couple among its members.
In the Ultimate Fighting Championship, promoting mixed martial arts of the highest caliber, the best female fighter of all time, Amanda Nunes, is a lesbian.
Unlike male LGBTQ athletes, their peers in America’s female sports leagues have enjoyed greater acceptance from the public and their heterosexual teammates in recent years. Rapinoe and Bird are among the world’s most popular and marketable female athletes. In Nunes’ last fight in March, she brought her baby and fiancee inside the Octagon after defeating her opponent.
According to Taylor Carr, chief of staff at Athlete Ally, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ athletes, this could be due to a greater sense of camaraderie in women’s sport brought on by other collective social struggles. Female athletes have fought for decades for equal pay, and the WNBA has played a leading role in many social justice causes, including a successful campaign by Atlanta Dream players to oust the owner of the team, former Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, after opposing the Black Lives. The movement of matter that the league teams were supporting.
“When you have all these people in women’s athletics sending very clear signals of what they believe, it makes you feel like ‘I have the capacity to compete and live like myself'”, Carr said. “I’m not just an athlete, I can bring my whole being to the pitch.”
There are signs of growing American acceptance of LGBTQ people, a cultural shift that may encourage other gay, bisexual and queer male athletes to come out publicly. Seventy percent of those polled in a Gallup poll this year said they support same-sex marriage, a 10 percent jump from 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled that all states must recognize such unions . Almost 6% of people polled in a 2020 Gallup poll identified themselves as LGBTQ, a jump of 1% from 2017.
It may take longer for this radical change to erode homophobic attitudes in men’s sports leagues, particularly NFL players have already faced offensive reactions to offensive comments, some immediately after an athlete high profile has publicly identified as gay.
Former Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace posted on Twitter after Collins announced in 2013 that he didn’t understand why with “all these beautiful women in the world and guys want to play with other guys.” . Wallace then apologized and deleted the message.
San Francisco running back Garrison Hearst apologized in 2002 for using an insult and said he would not want a gay player as a teammate after retired Minnesota Vikings player Esera Tuaolo stepped down. was publicly revealed as gay that year. Hearst’s comment prompted a public apology from 49ers team owners and then-head coach Steve Mariucci, but no league penalties.
For its part, the NFL has made efforts to publicly support LGBTQ inclusiveness. The league sponsored a float in the New York Pride Parades in 2018 and 2019, participated in promotional efforts during Pride Month in June, such as changing official social media avatars to include bows in -ciel, and supported the You Can Play project, which provides resources to encourage inclusion in youth sport.
Troy Vincent, executive vice president of football operations, wrote an essay last year saying the NFL was ready to welcome its first openly gay player. The league’s official social media accounts, including the Raiders, responded to Nassib’s video with heart icons.
Lapchick, who has studied gender and hiring practices in major sports leagues for more than 25 years, noted the changing cultural landscape of football. “If you had told me five years ago that the NFL and individual teams would use hearts in their communications, I wouldn’t have guessed it,” he said. “Especially among the men there was a fear of going out, and he broke that fear. I think the reaction will show other NFL players that they can do it too. “
André Das and Jacques Wagner contributed reports.
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