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Congratulatory messages flooded social media on Monday when the Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib announced on Instagram that he is gay and the first active NFL player to do so.
Jerseys and t-shirts bearing his name were the bestsellers 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 the defensive end of the Arizona Cardinals, JJ Watt, were quick to express their support for Nassib on Twitter. Well-known interest groups praised his declaration as monumental.
“I think people will see what I’ve seen in years that sport is a lot more accepted than people think it is,” said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports, a news website that deals with LGBTQ athletes and issues in sports.
However, Nassib said in his post that he “tortured” himself over the decision to bring his sexuality to the public after keeping it to himself for 15 years. That he is the only active player to play publicly in any of America’s four major professional sports leagues suggests the height of the barrier male athletes face when they openly acknowledge a gender or sexual identity that does not match them traditionally tolerated in changing rooms.
Other gay athletes who have gone public with their sexuality said that they felt pressured to repress it for simple but highly unaffordable reasons – despite the trends in society leading to greater acceptance relocate. Male athletes are taught to accept heteronormative masculinity standards in changing rooms, on playing fields and on courts.
“I think it’s mostly men and the machismo culture that professional sports are practiced in,” which has prevented men who identify as gay, bisexual or queer from coming out, said Richard Lapchick, director of the institute for diversity and ethics in sport.
Still, some male athletes dared to do so despite concerns about their safety and the backlash from teammates and fans. In February 2014, the NBA was the first of the four major American sports leagues to have an openly gay active player when Jason Collins, who was publicly outed last spring, moved to the Nets. He retired from playing later that year.
Michael Sam, who was an all-American selection during his college career as a defensive end in Missouri, announced he was gay weeks before Collins was signed in advance of this year’s NFL draft. The Rams picked him in the seventh and final round, and an overjoyed Sam wept and kissed his friend on national television in one of the most visible displays of gay male sexuality in the history of the sport.
But the Rams cut Sam before the end of the training camp. The Dallas Cowboys then signed Sam to their training team, but he didn’t play in a regular season game. In 2015 he retired from football.
In between, over the years, a handful of other notable male professional athletes made announcements about their sexuality only after their sports careers ended. But by the middle of the centuries, the stream of former male players publicly coming out as gay accelerated, which seemed to herald a change in sports culture. Athletes like former NBA player John Amaechi (2007) and retired NFL players Wade Davis (2012) and Kwame Harris (2013) publicly announced in their memoirs, magazine covers and, in the case of Harris, in a CNN interview that they are gay.
Major League Soccer 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 Oakland Athletics in the 1970s, is known as the first player in Major League history to come out to teammates during his career . It came out publicly in 1982, three years after his last major league game. Burke, who died of AIDS complications in 1995, was supported by a few teammates but was largely 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 fizzled out before it began. Nassib’s announcement may have been more accepted – at least publicly – among his colleagues, given that he is already a reliable veteran.
Nassib has already played in the NFL for five seasons and has held back in a lackluster but important position. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and has appeared in 73 games, starting in 37 of them while picking up 143 tackles.
Calling a “distraction” has long been a stigma attributed to players who hold any view or identity that contrasts with their teammates, but Nassib’s increasing fame has a positive side to it, Zeigler said. Its visibility could provide more opportunities to discuss topics related to LGBTQ athletes.
“A lot of people will be talking about it in the next few days, 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 additional cameras. It will be here for a while. “
The men’s professional teams in the US have lagged behind the women’s teams, 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 the current players in the league to come out as lesbian, and Layshia Clarendon, who openly identifies as transgender and non-binary, became the first player in January League that underwent top surgery while active.
Outspoken US women’s national soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who is engaged to WNBA’s Sue Bird, said after a game at the 2019 Women’s World Cup that “you can’t win a championship without gays on your team.” This year’s World Cup featured more than three dozen players and coaches who are actually gay, and the winning United States team had at least one couple among its members.
In the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the premier mixed martial arts graduation, the best fighter of all time, Amanda Nunes, is a lesbian.
In contrast to male LGBTQ athletes, their counterparts in American women’s sports leagues have gained more acceptance from the public and from their heterosexual teammates in recent years. Rapinoe and Bird are among the most popular and marketable female athletes in the world. In Nune’s last fight in March, she put her toddler and fiancée in the octagon after defeating her opponent.
According to Taylor Carr, chief of staff at Athlete Ally, an advocacy group for LGBTQ athletes, this could be due to greater camaraderie in women’s sports created by other collective social struggles. Women athletes have fought for equal pay for decades, and the WNBA has led a prominent role in many social justice matters, including a successful campaign by Atlanta Dream players to oust the team’s owner, Georgia Republican former Senator Kelly Loeffler, after speaking out against the Black Lives Material Movement, which supported the league’s teams.
“When you have all of these people in women’s athletics who are sending out very clear signals about what they believe, you feel like, ‘I have the ability to compete and live as myself,'” said Carr . “I’m not just an athlete, I can bring my whole self to the field.”
There is evidence that Americans are increasingly accepting LGBTQ people, a cultural shift that may encourage other gay, bisexual, and queer male athletes to come out publicly. 70 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll conducted this year said they support same-sex marriage, up 10 percent from 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled that all states must recognize these unions. Nearly 6 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll in 2020 identified themselves as LGBTQ, up 1 percent from 2017.
It may take longer for this upheaval to undermine homophobic attitudes in male sports leagues, with NFL players in particular previously dismissed for offensive comments, some in the wake of a high-profile athlete who publicly identified himself as gay.
Former Miami Dolphins recipient Mike Wallace posted on Twitter after Collins’ announcement in 2013 that he didn’t understand why “all these beautiful women and guys want to mess with other guys”. Wallace later apologized and deleted the post.
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 publicly came out gay that year. Hearst’s comment sparked public apologies from the 49ers team owners and then head coach Steve Mariucci, but no penalty from the league.
For its part, the NFL has endeavored to publicly support LGBTQ inclusion. The league sponsored a float in the 2018 and 2019 New York City Pride Parades, participated in promotions during Pride Month in June, such as B. changed official social media avatars to add rainbows and supported the You Can Play project, which provides resources to promote inclusivity for youth sports.
Troy Vincent, the executive vice president of football operations, wrote an essay last year arguing that the NFL was ready to welcome its first openly gay player. The league’s official social media accounts, including the Raiders, responded with heart symbols to Nassib’s video.
Lapchick, who has studied gender and attitudes practices in major sports leagues for over 25 years, noticed the changing cultural landscape of football. “If you’d told me five years ago that the NFL and individual teams used hearts in their communications, I wouldn’t have thought so,” he said. “Especially among men, there was a fear of coming out, and he broke that fear. I think the reaction will show other NFL players that they can too. “
Andrew Das and James Wagner contributed to the coverage.