Best of 2021 | Will the NFL Finally Support Gay Players?

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S1: Hey, listeners, over the holiday break, the What Next feed is bringing you some of our best episodes from 2021. We are taking you back to the stories and the people that helped define our year. And today we’re taking you back to the summer. That’s what a defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders’ Carl Nassib came out as gay. He became the first openly gay active NFL player ever. When I talked with L.A. Times columnist LZ Granderson, he told me he had been waiting for this day for years. And while he felt joy for finally reaching this milestone, he was also acutely aware of how hard it was going to be for the NFL to put some real muscle into supporting Carl and its other closeted players. Also quick heads up here, this episode includes some offensive language.

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S2: Lots of people on Carl Nassib, I’m at my house here in Westchester, Pennsylvania,

S1: last week, NFL defensive end Carl Nassib put out this video on Instagram. In it, he is holding the camera selfie style. You can see a bright green lawn behind him and in the most understated way possible, he says.

S2: Just want to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay? I do meaning to do this for a while now, but I finally feel comfortable enough to get it off my chest. I’m a pretty private person, so I hope you guys know that I’m really not doing this for attention. I just think that representation and visibility are so important.

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S1: This video is so understated that it might 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.

S3: Did you see how handsome he is? I mean, he would attract anybody. I mean,

S1: Dave Copé is one of those retired football players. He’s 78 now.

S3: I was the first player in all sports to come out and matches in the United States. But in the world,

S1: Dave loved watching this video from Carl Nassib

S3: because 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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S1: Here’s a couple of ways the world has changed. Back in the 70s, when Dave came out, his parents said they never wanted to see him again. He had to bat away questions like this one.

S4: Dave, what do you think was the the hardest moments you had to face after admitting that you were a homosexual?

S1: This is an interview Dave did back in the early 80s with a gossip columnist named Rona Barrett.

S4: Well, I don’t know if I even like the word admitting I’m a homosexual. I like saying that I’m a homosexual. Admit kind of implies guilt again, and I think that that’s what’s what’s so wrong in our society. You know that

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S3: people are going to blessing me and the newspapers. You know, it was really painful,

S1: even if the world around him didn’t understand his choice to come out. Dave says there was good stuff about being more open, like it was easier to find a date.

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S3: You know, when I was in great shape, too. I mean, it wasn’t looked like in those days, but my body kind of looked like a statue of Michelangelo, you know?

S1: But being gay 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, Dave’s got advice for Carl Nassib and players like him.

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S3: Make sure you’re prepared to accept a lot of grief. The National Football League never helped me at all, you know?

S1: Today on the show, has the NFL changed enough to make room for an openly gay player, and if so, how? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. To understand what Carl Nassib announcement means for the wider world of sports, I called up LZ Granderson. He’s an ESPN radio host and a columnist for the L.A. Times. And he’s gay, LZ says when he heard Karl’s announcement, he started crying, called it a dream come true.

S5: I had been working at this intersection of sports and politics and this conversation of sexual orientation and gender identity in sports for decades and writing about this since the 90s, all of it geared towards, you know, 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 it was like I was happy for Carl. I was more than happy for Carl. I was thrilled for Pearl and then I thought about all the kids. This would help. And then I just thought about my own journey, and all of that joy just came out in the form of tears.

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S1: LZ says even before Carl came out, he was already a notable player, not because of his size or his play or his salary, but because he was a walk on to his college football team against all odds. He made it to the pros

S5: and cons Don’t make it to the NFL. What walk ons don’t make it to the team? So he’s already a ground breaking me against the world, and I achieved kind of guy. I really love the fact that he reminds people that he’s a walk on because, you know, it’s really easy to see his contract in the numbers attached to it. You know, he’s he’s making millions. He was notable before. He’s famous now and everyone knows his name, or at least everyone in sports kind of know his name and awful story. 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, you know, 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, you know, wooed. He had to fight and scrap and throw in a lot of ways. All of that blood, sweat and tears that got him to this place was put at risk by making the statement because you don’t know how people are really going to respond and to be quite honest with you. And we still don’t know. You know, he made the statement during the off season. There’s still a pre-season or a camp. There’s still the regular season. And who knows if the postseason is in the future for the Raiders’ hasn’t been for a minute, but who knows what may happen, and they end up in the postseason. So he still has a lot more things to kind of be the first at doing right. 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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S1: Yeah. I mean, to make 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, like one reporter noted after watching Nassib video that he’d asked an NFL coach in 2013, like not that long ago inside of a decade, he’d asked 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.

S5: Well, I mean, I wouldn’t say no one wants to share with us, I know a lot of guys like showering with those on their side. 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 dehumanizes, to try to a racist. That’s not going to go way. So it does not surprise me then in 2013, that a reporter found someone who was of that tribe.

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S1: But can we talk about the sort of history of the NFL’s 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 co-pay. Can you talk a little bit about how he did that and how it was received at the time? This is back in 1975, I think.

S5: Yep, yep, sure it was. First, I would say that the NFL has always dealt with sexuality.

S1: Why do you say that?

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S5: Well, because when you look at the cheerleaders on the sidelines, I mean, you know, the stories of boys will be boys when you see the stories of domestic violence. I mean, we have seen the NFL makes a whole Mary. Oh, like all sorts of statements about gender, about sex, about sexuality,

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S1: but always from this very cis het perspective. Right?

S5: Exactly, exactly. And I feel that it’s 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 blah. No, it’s not. It is a big deal because straight guys make it a big deal all the time. Mm hmm.

S1: Yeah. We always care who they sleep with.

S5: We always care who they sleep with. We always insulin shots of spouses and girlfriends in the stands when it’s cause, when a good play is made and we’d like to point to them. So we talk about sexuality in the NFL all the time. The question is, where are these homophobes talking gay people from talking about their sexuality? That’s true. 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? To your point, all the way back to the 70s with Dave Copé when he came out in his autobiography.

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S1: How did the league react when he did that?

S5: They tried to potatoes if it wasn’t there. Hmm. 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. They tried to pretend like it wasn’t there, even though Paul Tagliabue, who was a former commissioner and NFL, had an openly gay son. They tried to pretend that it’s not there, even though the current commissioner, Roger Goodell, has an openly gay brother. So if 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 handle Carl Nassib is that instead of being reactionary, which is always sort of been their mantra when it comes to social justice issues, they were proactive. They came out right away with the statement. Roger Goodell came out with the statement, the Raiders’ Carmel, the statement the owner of the Raiders’ came out with the statement. They were more proactive in letting their fan base know where they stood, as opposed to some of the other examples I talked about where they kind of hope they will just go away and then issue apologies or make strongly worded statements when it doesn’t go away.

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S1: So Dave Copé was the first player to come out as gay, but he wasn’t the last. The closest the league came to having an openly gay player on the field. That was back in 2014. That’s when Michael Sam, an all-American from the University of Missouri, announced he was gay right before the NFL draft in the final round. Sam got picked by the St. Louis Rams. He burst into tears, kissed his boyfriend on national television, but he never ended up playing in a regular season game. He retired from football a year later. It’s impossible to know whether or how Sam Sexuality Crash landed his career, and LZ says mistakes were made on both sides here. Like Sam made this choice to sign a reality TV deal about his story before the season even started.

S5: 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 truly do. I’m also a sports journalist and I know how hard it is to play on Sundays. And when you’re I believe he was a sixth round pick or the seventh in Series six or seven. When you’re that late in the draft, you already have so much you know that you have to fight through and then you were the first openly gay player. So there is a whole other layer that you have to, you know, manage. But then you want to add in a reality TV show. Come on, man, you do it too much bad. You do it too much. Now, when do you stay at that? The mental health aspect of it was too much because you were adding too much.

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S1: What are the mistakes you think that the team made?

S5: Oh man, what a mistake that the team made.

S1: Where do I start?

S5: Where do I start? So, you know, I think that when it comes to Michael, Sam, the team and its attempt to look for good players, which is the main purpose of the draft, but also be cognizant of the statement they were making. I don’t think I had enough mental health support for Michael. You know, 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 are only interested in him.

S1: 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 smaller player and making a transition?

S5: Or he needed that he needed that mental health support because he was in the closet all those years. Yeah, I mean, being in the closet LZ 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 towards gay people growing up, the fact that he didn’t feel as if he belonged in me coming out is a. Mental health charities coming out in front of the cameras is a mental health journey. Very few people understand coming out and 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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S1: When we come back, there are other NFL players still in the closet right now. LZ explains why? 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 like, I read one sportswriter who talked about Dave Co-pay, that first NFL player to come out and how kind of lonely he seemed and how he was abandoned a bit by the league.

S5: Mm hmm.

S1: 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?

S5: Yeah, you know, it’s sort of what I talked about before, which is there being the NFL, that is their 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.

S1: And it doesn’t matter what kind of controversy,

S5: and 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. And oh, by the way, it’s a very successful strategy, monetarily, monetarily. It’s a very successful strategy. Why do I say this? Because it still is the number one sport in the country. If their games are still the most watched events on television, the Super Bowl still, you know, attracts like a hundred million people viewing.

S1: This is not to say the NFL can’t change its stance. They do that with the right amount of public pressure.

S5: I mean, right now, if you look at them, you know you believe that, you know, Roger Goodell was kneeling first and fighting for for Black Lives that. We really talk about it now, but obviously we know how that story began, right? So they don’t need in this space. But once they eventually are doing their cutting and dragging and screaming and whatnot, they do lend resources. I mean, they donated, you know, tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, since Cavanagh had, you know, began his protest to causes that Kaepernick, you know, cared about. Now the fact that they tried to make these donations while pretending as if it was their idea and not acknowledge the fact that they ran Kaepernick out of out of the league. That’s just how the NFL is that’s continuing to want to move on. The 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 that is that they’ve always been there.

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S1: Yeah, I noticed that on social media, they were pushing out a picture of Dave Co-pay

S5: and Gurlitt’s, and they don’t stop.

S1: And I was just like, Wow, OK,

S5: if you want, you want to help out Dave Copay. You really want to celebrate the achievements and what Dave Copay did, you know 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 Copé, you’re the NFL, you actually have real power, so you’re sitting back letting more than 250 anti LGBTQ bills get, you know, introduced around the country. And you don’t say a word, but you want to put up Dave Copé on Pride Month and act like you down for the cause. And if you don’t cut that shit out, right, I guess what I need or what I need from you in order to really believe that you’re an ally and not just an advertiser 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, which is what they did last month. That’s what we need. We got the pictures of dead co-pay. What we need is your muscle.

S1: Is the reason the NFL is like this, this kind of lagging indicator for the rest of the country is the reason it’s like this really just all about the money. I mean, I think some people would say, Oh, it’s the macho culture. But would you say no to that?

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S5: I would say it’s a combination of things. You know, there is definitely the toxic masculinity that all professional sports in collegiate sports and high school sports and sometimes even peewee breeds. You know, you throw like a girl, you have like a girl, blah blah blah man up, you know, don’t cry. But 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.

S1: I know this is everywhere, but is this a particular problem in the NFL, like 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.

S5: 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 in 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 that earning potential. I mean, go back to we’ve been talking about happening. Look what happened to Colin Kaepernick’s career? Wasn’t resigned, wasn’t able to continue on in his career, his chosen profession, the thing that he dreamed about his whole life and trained for his whole life. He wasn’t able to go on because the owners, whether they did it collectively or as individuals. The reality is the league decided that a starting quarterback in the NFL that led his team to the Super Bowl. All of a sudden wasn’t worthy of being in the league anymore, and they try to tell us it’s because of his playing like some damn 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. This is your dream. And so I would say that the the structure of the contracts and compensation play 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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S1: Hmm. Was it different for Nassib? Like you alluded to a five year contract? He has like had he locked something down before he made this announcement?

S5: Well, I think the one he had the contract in hand to your point, before he made the announcement. So now if the raiders decide they’re going to cut him, it looks real suspicious. Colin Kaepernick started his protest during his final year, so he did not have a contract in hand 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 to 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 Sunday’s 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 five when he was in the closet.

S1: 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, the Raiders defensive end has his jersey was the top selling item across the league. It is a statement. It just means that the public is making a choice and literally voting with their dollars. And God knows the NFL respects that

S5: they don’t respect the money. But I would say that we are off to a good start, but this is certainly not the entire story. I know for a fact that there’s a lot about the NFL that has changed for the better as it pertains to LGBTQ people and the conversation of equality and participation in professional sports. 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. You know, they’re I’m sure that they want to, you know, jump full on and, you know, do some some rainbow T-shirts and say gay care and the player era. But what are they going to do when you know, people start to organize and say, this isn’t right? So it’s fantastic that they tweeted in the hashtag Carl name and said that we’re here for you. But are they here for us? Is the question. I’ve been here for the community of which Carl has said that he’s a part of now, and we don’t know that yet. What happens if you know the word failure to scream and the 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 been asked to usher these people out? You know, remember, a lot of these people are making very, very little money and they’re ushering and they are there to help make the experience enjoyable for everyone. But when these slurs stuff, you know, flying around and there’s drinking happening. How comfortable are they going to be to enforce these rules or these policies? And as the NFL prepared to help undergird these individuals so that they do feel comfortable, you know, enforcing these rules? So that’s a work to do. And in my opinion, in regards to how the NFL handles this News’, the initial response has been perfect, but now comes the work. So don’t equate social media all, you know, 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.

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S1: I’m sure there are more gay NFL players we just don’t know about.

S5: Yes, there are. I can confirm that for you.

S1: And you clearly know about them.

S5: Yes.

S1: When you’re talking to the players, you know who are gay but are closeted. How do you do you ever encourage them to come out or say, like, here’s how I think you could do it? Or do you see your role as more straight listener?

S5: It hard for me to be a straight listener. I think the game is all I would say that 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 don’t I don’t do this joke as much anymore. But prior to like Tinder and Grinder and you know, those phone apps for dating and hookups. Mm-Hmm. I used to tell them that, listen, you’re a heterosexual counterparts right now are landing in cities and in strip clubs and getting laid every single moment they possibly can. And you’re in your hotel room eating, you know, checking out takeout and, you know, 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?

S1: What do they say when you say that? I mean, they laugh. I’m sure

S5: they are. Do they laugh? We all laugh. You know, and stuff like that. Because because what I’m trying to do is bring some levity to it as well. But I am also serious, too. I mean, I’ve I’ve hung out with tons of street players, particularly the NFL and women are just throwing themselves at them. You know, stan from across the room

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S1: and you look at those guys, you know, like, this could be you, friend.

S5: Seriously, I might go on seriously, dog, if you go to the abbey right now. Trust me, it would be good for you. But you stay here right now. You watch no, Simon. And you know, Simon came out. Simon came out, dog. That’s the end of the day. Simon came out Victor to LZ.

S1: This has been such a generous conversation. Thank you for having it.

S5: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m super duper super excited.

S1: LZ Granderson is an ESPN radio host and a columnist for The L.A. Times. He’s also the host of his own podcast. ABC News. His Life Out Loud with LZ Granderson. Check it out. And that is our show. This episode of What Next was produced by Mary Wilson Alaina Schwartz, Carmel Delshad Daniel Hewitt and Davis Land. We miss you, Davis. Every day, we are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. I hope you are enjoying the holidays. I’m Mary Harris. We will be back with a brand new episode. January 3rd. Catch it on!