By Milo Boublik
New York City, New York
Last Monday, Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to publicly come out as gay. He made his announcement by posting a video to Instagram in which he said, “I just wanted to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay.” In this same video, he described how difficult this decision had been for him: “I have agonized over this moment for the past fifteen years.”
A large part of Nassib’s hesitation to come out was undoubtedly due to the fear of receiving judgement from his peers and, for that matter, everyone else in the NFL organization. The culture of football is one defined by stereotypical masculinity and toughness, and this has allowed homophobia to thrive in the NFL in the past. After Michael Sam, the first publicly gay player to be drafted into the NFL, announced that he was gay in 2014, there was a barrage of homophobic comments from around the NFL. One NFL player personnel assistant said, “I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet… it’s still a man’s‑man game. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.” One assistant coach said, “It’s going to be a big distraction.” Michael Sam was a star defensive lineman in college, but, even though he was drafted into the NFL, he never played an NFL game.
The experience of Roy Simmons, a gay player who formerly played for the Giants, was another example of the homophobic culture of the NFL. He never came out while playing because he was afraid that it would bring his career to an end. He said, “The NFL has a reputation… you are gladiators; you are male; you kick butt,” and, “You can be a wife beater, do drugs, get in a car wreck and the team will take care of you. But if you’re gay, it’s like the military: Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Roy Simmons’ description of the culture of the NFL and the reaction to Michael Sam’s announcement was a representation for any other gay players that the NFL was not a place of acceptance. However, the support that Carl Nassib received from players and personnel around the NFL suggests that major progress has been made toward creating a more accepting culture in the NFL.
After Nassib’s announcement, several important NFL figures quickly voiced their support. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement: “The NFL family is proud of Carl for courageously sharing his truth today… We share his hope that someday soon statements like his will no longer be newsworthy as we march toward full equality for the LGBTQ+ community.” Raiders Owner Mark Davis was quick to back Nassib’s statement: “It's 2021. All the more power to Carl. It doesn't change my opinion of him as a person or as a Raider.”
Several fellow NFL players also publicly displayed their support. Cardinals defensive end JJ Watt tweeted, “Good for you Carl. Glad you feel comfortable enough to share and hopefully someday these types of announcements will no longer be considered breaking news.” Also, Giants running back Saquon Barkley tweeted, “Much respect brudda.” Finally, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said, “I have often said I love my teammates. I mean it. We always say we are a family in that Raider locker room, and we mean that too. I want to win a championship here with Carl and the rest of our teammates.”
Despite all of this support, the reality is that there are likely many members of the NFL organization who still quietly hold homophobic beliefs, and, thus, there is still much progress to be made in completely transforming the NFL into an accepting league. However, the drastic change that has taken place in the NFL’s culture in just a seven year span from the coming out of Michael Sam to that of Carl Nassib is a cause for great optimism.