Carl Nassib’s social media video announcing to the world that he was gay took just 59 seconds. But the NFL player’s decision to come out, making him the league’s first active, openly gay player — well, that was years in the making.
Before Nassib, there was Michael Sam — the former St. Louis Rams seventh-rounder who came out just before the 2014 draft, only to never play a game in the NFL. Before Sam, there was Jason Collins — the former NBA center who came out a year earlier. The list of gay men who have acknowledged their sexuality while playing professional sports — team sports, especially — is short. But those trailblazers no doubt paved the way for Nassib to add his name to the roster on Monday.
Wade Davis, a former NFL cornerback who retired after a training camp stint with the then-Washington Redskins in 2003, came out as gay nearly nine years later. He told The Washington Times that the increased visibility of gay people has helped plenty of others step forward.
“For Carl to invite the world in — this is not the first time that someone has engaged with someone who identifies as LGBT,” said Mr. Davis, a former consultant to the NFL on gay rights. “You’d have to literally be in a bubble to say you don’t know anyone who identifies as such. So I would say the shift is in the visibility.
“LGBT people [are] unafraid to claim openly that they love themselves and that they’re going to not live in silence and they’re not going to believe the myth that we are less than,” Mr. Davis said.
On Instagram, Nassib said he didn’t come out to draw attention to himself, but rather because “representation and visibility are so important.” The six-year NFL veteran wrote that he has agonized about coming out for 15 years but recently decided to do so because of the support from friends and family.
The Las Vegas Raider’s decision was met with an outpouring of support across sports and elsewhere. Sam congratulated and thanked the 28-year-old defensive lineman on Twitter. Collins tweeted that he was “incredibly happy” and couldn’t wait to watch Nassib on the field in the fall.
The NFL community lined up behind Nassib, a 2016 third-rounder out of Penn State.
Commissioner Roger Goodell praised Nassib for “courageously sharing his truth,” while stars such as J.J. Watt and Saquon Barkley tweeted their support. Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden told ESPN that he “learned a long time ago what makes a man different is what makes him great.” Raiders legend Bo Jackson tweeted that he was proud of Nassib.
“#RaiderNation, the whole country and I stand with you,” Jackson wrote.
Nassib’s decision to come out is a watershed moment for the NFL, but it’s a moment the league has been moving toward for years.
According to Outsports, there have been at least 15 openly gay players in NFL history — most of whom came out after their playing days. Those names include former Washington tight end Jerry Smith (1965-77), former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jeff Rohrer (1982-89) and former defensive tackle Esera Tuaolo (1991-99).
Beyond football, Collins became the first openly gay NBA player to step foot on a court when he signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets in 2014. In MLB, Glenn Burke is recognized as the first openly gay player around teammates, though his sexual identity wasn’t revealed to the press until later. Former Athletics infielder Billy Bean also came out after retirement.
Women’s sports have several notable gay athletes, including tennis’ Billie Jean King and golf’s Rosie Jones. Mystics forward and former MVP Elena Delle Donne married Amanda Clifton in 2017. U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe and WNBA star Sue Bird are in one of the sports world’s most celebrated relationships.
Not everyone is accepting, of course. When Sam kissed his boyfriend on draft night in 2014, the moment generated a backlash. Then-Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones tweeting “OMG” and “horrific.” Former running back Derrick Ward called the act “disgusting.”
Davis said when he was in the NFL from 2000 to 2003, he never thought about coming out, partly because he thought he would “be in danger” if he spoke up.
Davis said athletes seem more comfortable about speaking out — not just on sexuality, but also on race.
“Athletes, whether they’re Black, White or whatever, they’re much more aware of their power,” Davis said. “They’re much more open to these kinds of conversations.”