To fully understand just how brave, how stunning, how historic it is for Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib to come out as gay, being the first active NFL player to do so, you have to go back in history. You have to start with the opposite of now. You have to start with fear. With anger. With hate.
All of those things likely forced a legion of NFL players to stay cloaked and hide who they truly were. They couldn't publicly say they were gay because they might be physically attacked in the locker room. Or cut by the team. Or any number of other things that could have destroyed them or their careers.
So they stayed quiet. They took their secrets with them out of the league and in some cases, probably to their deaths. Who knows how many players stayed in the closet throughout NFL history? Dozens? Hundreds? More?
Carl Nassib of the Raiders (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)
Decades before Nassib, there was Dave Kopay, who kept his orientation secret, coming out three years after his football career ended. Sports Illustrated wrote of Kopay: "For much of his time with the 49ers, Lions, Washington, Saints and Packers, Kopay didn't come out even to himself. He tried many of the classic countermeasures: He entered a minor seminary for a while (before transferring to a regular Catholic high school) and married a stewardess. He didn't want to be gay."
Michael Sam became the first openly gay NFL drafted player. He hadn't discussed his orientation publicly while in college.
Former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan contemplated suicide. Former Washington player Jerry Smith never came out as gay, even after leaving football in 1977.
Former NFL player Roy Simmons came out as gay after his NFL career. When he published a memoir in 2006, the NFL denied his application for a radio row Super Bowl credential.
This was the road most NFL players went down. They were brave in their own way, and also tormented, because the NFL, and society, told them to stay quiet. So they did.
What Nassib has done is help make being gay in the NFL less something to fear. But it's bigger than even that. His announcement may have saved lives. Maybe a troubled LGBTQ teen, some of whom contemplate suicide, according to surveys, will see Nassib's words and feel there's no need to hide or be ashamed. That person can just … be.
This is something Sam has talked about repeatedly. He's said in interviews the first time he truly understood the power of coming out was after a girl told him his announcement saved her life. She'd been bullied and was previously on suicide watch.
“I decided to be the shield and the sword,” Sam said, “to be whatever people needed me to be.”
Even as recently as 2016, being gay in the NFL was something seen as potentially problematic. A Falcons assistant was forced to apologize after it became public that he asked then-Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple if he was gay.
Nassib gets all of the credit here for his bravery, but there's no question he was assisted by trailblazers before him, as well as a younger generation that for decades has fought for LGBTQ rights, and has helped normalize that being gay is, well, normal.
To younger people, focusing on sexual orientation is for suckers and the olds. There's no reason for anyone to be marginalized. You live your life. You exist. You love. You do what you do.
You mind your business. You certainly don't judge or hate.
Nassib has made history, and it will be remembered this way, as it should be. His bravery should never be forgotten.
What Nassib is trying to do, however, is bigger. He's trying to make it so one day, no one takes their life because they're gay, or feels ostracized.
One day, Nassib hopes, being gay is as normal a thing as walking down the street.
It will happen.
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