Sports

What It Would Take for More NFL Players to Come Out of the Closet

Carl Nassib frowns while standing on a football field in a Las Vegas Raiders jersey.
Defensive end Carl Nassib at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Dec. 17. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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Last week, NFL defensive end Carl Nassib put out this video on Instagram. In it, he’s holding the camera selfie-style. You can see a bright green lawn behind him. And in the most understated way possible he says: “I just want to take a quick moment to say, I’m gay.”

This video is so understated it can be hard to imagine why it’s a big deal at all. To understand that, you need to know that no other active NFL player has said this out loud before. Ever. But retired football players, they have come out, though. Dave Kopay is one of those retired football players. He is 79 now.

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“I was the first ballplayer in all sports to come out and not just in the United States, but in the world,” Kopay says. Kopay loved watching that video from Carl Nassib. I’d be stupid if I didn’t say I was envious, but I really know how the world has changed.”

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Here’s a few ways the world has changed. Back in the ’70s, when Kopay came out? His parents said they never wanted to see him again. He had to bat away ridiculous questions from reporters. “People were kind of blasting me in the newspapers, and it was really painful,” Kopay says. Coming out made life easier for Kopay in many ways, but it also meant giving up on his dream of coaching football. He just couldn’t get hired. Instead, he worked in the family flooring business. So even though it’s been years since he broke his silence, Kopay has advice for Carl Nassib and players like him: “Make sure you’re prepared to accept a lot of grief. The National Football League never helped me at all, you know.”

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On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with LZ Granderson, who’s an ESPN Radio host and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He’s also gay. And I asked Granderson whether the NFL has changed enough to make room for an openly gay player—and if so—how. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: What was your reaction to Carl’s announcement?

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LZ Granderson: I had been working at this intersection of sports and politics and this conversation of sexual orientation and gender identity in sports for decades. I’ve been writing about this since the 90s, all of it geared toward this notion that one day a man in one of the big three sports would come out while still playing. And that came true this week. So I was happy for Carl. I was more than happy for Carl. I was thrilled for Carl. And then I thought about all the kids this will help, and I thought about my own journey, all of that joy just came out in the form of tears.

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And Nassib was already a notable player in the NFL because he was a walk-on to his college football team, right? Against all odds, he made it to the pros.

Walk-ons don’t make it to the NFL, so he is already a groundbreaking, me-against-the-world kind of guy. I really love the fact that he reminds people that he’s a walk-on. He’s famous now and everyone knows his name, so it’s easy to assume that he has it easier in some ways. And so when he talks about being a walk-on, he’s also reminding people that not only was he in the closet, but he was in the closet while fighting for his athletic career and athletic life. He wasn’t recruited. He wasn’t wooed. He had to fight and scrap. And so, in a lot of ways, all of that blood, sweat, and tears that got him to this place was put at risk by making this statement, because you don’t know how people are really going to respond, and to be quite honest with you, we still don’t know. He made the statement during the off-season. There’s still preseason, camp. There’s still the regular season. He still has a lot more things to be the first at doing. He came out, but he hasn’t been the first openly gay player to play on Sunday yet. That’s still to come. He hasn’t been the first openly gay player to make a bad play that may have cost him the game. That’s to come. He may not have won the game yet. That’s to come. So he still has more layers that are going to be peeled in front of the world. And that’s risky.

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You’re making this point that this is just the beginning and he’s making this statement as part of a league that historically has not been accepting to gay players. One reporter noted after watching Nassib’s video that he’d asked an NFL coach in 2013—not that long ago—whether a gay player would ever be welcomed in the league, and the coach said no, because nobody wants to shower with a gay person. And he didn’t use the term gay person. He used a slur.

I wouldn’t say no one wants to shower with us. I know a lot of guys like showering with us! Listen, there will always be people who will say things, who would try to pass laws, who would try to use Scripture. There will always be people that would try to find reasons to discount us, to discredit us, to dehumanize us, to try to erase us. That’s not going to go away. So it does not surprise me then in 2013 that a reporter found someone who was of that tribe.

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But can we talk about the history of the NFL dealing with the sexuality of its players? Because it’s rocky, and of course, no other active players have come out, but retired players have and recruits have. The first NFL player to reveal he was gay was Dave Kopay. Can you talk a little bit about how he did that and how it was received at the time? This is back in 1975.

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First, I would say that the NFL has always dealt with sexuality.

Why do you say that?

Look at the cheerleaders on the sidelines, the stories of boys will be boys. You see the stories of domestic violence. We have seen the NFL make a whole myriad of statements about gender, about sex, about sexuality.

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But from this very cis het perspective, right?

Right, exactly. It is important that we point that out because there will be some that will say, “Hey, why do we care about who he sleeps with? It’s not a big deal, blah, blah, blah, blah.” No, it is a big deal because straight guys make it a big deal all the time. We always care who they sleep with. We always are showing shots of spouses and girlfriends in the stands. So we talk about sexuality in the NFL all the time. The question is: Why are these homophobes stopping gay people from talking about their sexuality? That’s the real question. And how is the NFL going to now navigate this conversation now that Carl has come out? Because they’ve tried to avoid this conversation since all the way back in the ’70s with Dave Kopay when he came out in his autobiography.

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How did the league react when he did that?

They tried to pretend as if it wasn’t there, even though he also wrote about lovers he had that were in the NFL as well. They tried to pretend like it wasn’t there, even though Paul Tagliabue, a former commissioner of the NFL, had an openly gay son. They tried to put pretend that is wasn’t there, even though the current commissioner, Roger Goodell, has an openly gay brother. So the NFL has a long and well-documented history of sticking its collective head in the sand when it comes to uncomfortable or controversial issues.

The one thing I will say that’s a little bit different about the way they handled Carl Nassib is that instead of being reactionary, which is always been their mantra when it comes to social justice issues, they were proactive. They came out right away with a statement. They were more proactive in letting their fan base know where they stood, as opposed to so many other examples where they hoped it would just go away and then issue apologies when it doesn’t go away.

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Let’s talk about Michael Sam. He was this All-American from the University of Missouri who announced that he was gay in 2014 right before the NFL draft. In the final round, Sam was picked up by the St. Louis Rams. He burst into tears and kissed his boyfriend on national television. But he never ended up playing in a regular season game. And he retired from football in 2015.

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Just because you’re drafted doesn’t mean you’re going to make the team, and the later you get drafted, the less likely it is that you will make the team. So while I appreciate the history of him coming out before the NFL draft and I appreciate the history of him actually being drafted as an openly gay player, I’m also a sports journalist, and I know how hard it is to play on Sundays. And when you’re a seventh-round pick, when you’re that late in the draft, you already have so much that you have to fight through. And then you were the first openly gay player, so there’s a whole other layer that you have to manage. But then you want to add in a reality TV show? Come on, man, you’re doing too much. No wonder you said that the mental health aspect of it was too much because you were adding too much.

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What are the mistakes you think the team made?

Where do I start? When it comes to Michael Sam, the team, in its attempt to look for good players, which is the main purpose of the draft, while also being cognizant of the statement they were making, I don’t think had enough mental health support for Michael. I don’t feel as if there was a good enough job by them making sure he had people to talk to who weren’t interested in fame, who weren’t interested in the story, but who were only interested in him

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Do you think he needed that mental health support because he’d come out, and that had been such a big deal, or because he was a small player and making a transition, or?

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He needed that mental health support because he was in the closet all those years. Being in the closet effs you up in a lot of ways. And when you think about some of the things he talked about with his upbringing, where he grew up, the attitudes toward gay people growing up, the fact that he didn’t feel as if he belonged, coming out is a mental health journey. Coming out in front of the cameras is a mental health journey. Very few people understand coming out in front of the cameras as a football player—it’s a journey hardly anyone has ever understood, and so to try to deal with all of that without having someone in your ecosystem who only cares about your well-being and nothing else, it feels like an impossible task.

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I’m curious whether you would compare the NFL’s yearslong struggle with close mindedness when it comes to sexuality to other struggles the league has had, like with race. I read one sportswriter who talked about Dave Kopay and how he was abandoned by the league—and compared that experience to Colin Kaepernick, who’d been a darling of the league until he started kneeling. And I wonder if you would put those two things together as well.

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The NFL’s normal response to controversy is to be silent and hope it goes away, and they only come to the table when there’s nowhere else to run and there’s nowhere else to hide. It does not matter what kind of controversy exactly; they believe that the best strategy from a publicity/PR/branding perspective is to wait until it blows over. It’s a very successful strategy monetarily. Why do I say this? Because it still is the No. 1 sport in the country. Their games are still the most watched events on television. The Super Bowl still attracts, like, 100 million people viewing.

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That’s not to say that the NFL can’t change its stance … with the right amount of public pressure.

Right now, you would believe that, you know, Roger Goodell was kneeling first and fighting for Black lives, the way they talk about it now. But obviously, we know how that story began. They don’t lead in this space, but once they eventually get there, kicking and dragging and screaming and whatnot, they do lend resources. They donated tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars now since Kaepernick began his protest to causes that Kaepernick cared about. Now, the fact that they tried to make these donations as if it was their idea and not acknowledge the fact that they ran Kaepernick out of the league? That’s just how the NFL is. That’s continuing to want to move on, put their head in the sand, certainly not address in a real, significant way their own infractions. They just want to pick up where the story is today and act as if they’ve always been there.

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Yeah, I noticed that on social media they were pushing out a picture of Dave Kopay.

Girl, listen. They don’t stop.

And I was just like, wow, OK.

If you want to help out Dave Kopay, you really want to celebrate the achievements and what Dave Kopay did bravely back in the ’70s, then why don’t you name an award in his honor and talk specifically as to why that award is there? Or be more proactive in terms of addressing what we’re witnessing right now from a legislative perspective. Anybody can tweet a picture of Dave Kopay. You’re the NFL. You actually have real power. So you’re sitting back letting more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills get introduced around the country. And you don’t say a word, but you want to put up Dave Kopay on Pride Month and act like you down for the cause? What I need from you in order to really believe that you’re an ally is to fight with us in the trenches. What we need is for you to have a strong statement when the Supreme Court says it’s OK to discriminate against same-sex couples.

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Is the reason the NFL is like this really just all about the money? Some people would say it’s the macho culture, but would you say no to that?

It’s a combination of things. There is definitely the toxic masculinity that all professional sports and collegiate sports and high school sports and sometimes even pee wee sports breeds. You know, “you throw like a girl,” “you hit like a girl,” blah, blah, blah. These are lessons that are unfortunately taught through the prism of sports at a very, very, very young age. And so I’m not going to say that it strictly is the NFL. This is a toxic element of sports that we are working very hard to try to get rid of because it doesn’t benefit anyone.

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I know this is everywhere, but is this a particular problem in the NFL? Some folks have singled out the fact that the NFL has the most hierarchical and militaristic of structures and that that might be contributing to why it’s taken so long to have an active player simply say they’re gay.

I would say that what makes the NFL unique in this space isn’t the militaristic approach to the game. It really was the structure of the contracts. There was no security. When you have a five-year contract, but you can be cut the next year, you don’t have a five-year contract. So part of the calculus in terms of NFL players or just professional athletes in general coming out is how does this impact my career? How does this impact my ability to earn money and to grow my own brand and my own enterprise? And in the NFL, because the contracts weren’t guaranteed, you really risk just being cut and losing all of that money, losing all of the earning potential.

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Look what happened to Colin Kaepernick’s career. He wasn’t re-signed, wasn’t able to continue on his career, his chosen profession that he dreamed about his whole life and trained for his whole life. He wasn’t able to go on, because the league decided that a starting quarterback in the NFL that led us to the Super Bowl all of a sudden wasn’t worthy of being in the league anymore. And they try to tell us it was because of his playing, like we some damned fools. So when you’re a closeted NFL player and you see something like that, hell yeah it makes you nervous, because you don’t want to lose your career either. And so I would say that the structure of the contracts and compensation played a bigger role in why the NFL struggles in this space, more so than its approach to coaching or structure of the teams.

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Was it different for Nassib? You alluded to a five-year contract?

He had the contract in hand before he made the announcement. So now, if the Raiders decide they’re going to cut him, it looks really suspicious. Colin Kaepernick started his protest during his final year, so he did not have a contract in hand for the following season and no one offered him one. With Carl, he has a contract in place now. It’s going to be really difficult for the Raiders or the NFL to run Carl out of the league today based on the fact that he’s in the league. Unlike Michael Sam, who never played on Sundays, Carl has. He has a contract in hand, unlike Colin Kaepernick. And on top of that, the culture in America has changed. And we’re watching a lot more attentively. We have more allies, and it’s going to be hard for them to tell us that Carl can’t play anymore after he came out, when he was playing just fine when he was in the closet.

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And we should say the reaction to his coming out, it’s been overwhelmingly positive so far. I love this fact that in the 24 hours since Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to come out as gay, his jersey was the top selling item across the league. It just means that the public is making a choice and literally voting with their dollars. And God knows the NFL respects that.

They definitely respect the money. I would say that we are off to a good start. But this is certainly not the entire story. The NFL has changed a lot for the better. But what we don’t know is how much has the NFL fan changed. What we don’t know is how advertisers are going to really feel about this. I’m sure that they want to jump full on and do some rainbow T-shirts. But what are they going to do when people start to organize and say this isn’t right?

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It’s fantastic that the NFL tweeted Carl’s name and said that we’re here for you, but are they here for us? Are they here for the community of which Carl has said that he’s a part of now? What happens if [a slur] is screamed in a football stadium? Are they going to usher that homophobic person out of the building? Are they going to ignore them? Are they going to support the staff that’s being asked to usher these people out? Remember, a lot of these people are making very, very little money, and they are there to help make the experience enjoyable for everyone. But when these slurs start flying around and there’s drinking happening, how comfortable are they going to be to enforce these rules? And is the NFL prepared to help undergird these individuals so that they do feel comfortable enforcing these rules?

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There’s work to do in regards to how the NFL handles this news. The initial response has been perfect. But now comes the work. Don’t equate social media positive reinforcement with actual tangible policies or cultural changes. That is still a work in progress. That is something you still need to wait to see

I’m sure there are more gay NFL players we just don’t know about.

Yes, there are. And I can confirm that for you.

And you clearly know about them. 

Yes.

When you’re talking to the players you know who are gay but are closeted, do you ever encourage them to come out?

My approach has always been talking about the reasons why I came out and how that benefited my life and how that has benefited the lives of some other people that I know and how it could benefit their own lives. And one of my running jokes with some of them—I used to tell them that, listen, your heterosexual counterparts right now are landing in cities, hitting strip clubs, and getting laid every single moment they possibly can. And you’re in your hotel room eating takeout and hoping no one notices you in your room watching Love, Simon or something like that. Like, why are you letting them enjoy this time of their lives while you’re in your room living in fear? What I’m trying to do is bring some levity to it as well. But I am also serious, too. I’ve hung out with tons of straight players, particularly the NFL, and women are just throwing themselves at them.

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