The news about Carl Nassib coming out as gay makes him the first active NFL player to come out as a member of the LGBTQ community.
There have been former NFL players, like Ryan O’Callaghan and Ryan Russell, who have come out since they left the league, but Nassib coming out while being on a roster is a first. This is a monumental milestone in the history of the league and major sports in America. However, it is another chapter in the complex relationship that the league has had with the LGBTQ community in America.
History and acceptance of LGBTQ in the NFL
Carl Nassib is not the first LGBTQ person that played or coached football at a high level. There have been notable college football standouts, like Michael Sam or Scott Frantz. There have been many players who have come out post-retirement, like Dave Kopay or Jeff Rohrer. Katie Sowers, an open lesbian, was a coach on the 49ers during their super bowl run in 2019. However, it is likely that for every out gay player, there are tens to hundreds that are closeted.
In 2019 former NFL player an openly gay man Ryan O’Callaghan stated “I think it’s safe to say there’s at least one on every team who is either gay or bisexual. A lot of guys still see it as potentially having a negative impact on their career”. His statement does make sense, as there is a history of closeted NFL players. Hall of fame QB Warren Moon stated that he played with many talented gay players during his career. Moon stated that he didn’t care about the player’s sexual preference, and proudly played football with these players.
This acceptance that Moon exhibits is admirable, and is something that legendary coach Vince Lombardi also demonstrated. Lombardi was ardently anti-discrimination and supported and protected his tight end, Jerry Smith after he learned that Smith was gay. Lombardi’s tolerance and acceptance of his gay players are remarkable today, but even more so back in 1969. The tragic fact is that this acceptance is not something that is synonymous with the NFL community. Tragically it is the opposite, as homophobia is rampant within the NFL community.
Homophobia in the football world
Pro sports, but especially football, foster communities that are hypermasculine and prioritize ideals of strength and aggressiveness. This obsession with strength leads to perceived weaknesses being looked down upon. Due to rampant homophobia within society, being gay is viewed as a weakness. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, as coming out as gay in a society that historically has persecuted members of the LGBTQ community is incredibly brave and deserves applause. However, this bravery is not commonly recognized in athletic circles, especially in football. Anyone who’s stepped into a High School football locker room knows the rampant and casual homophobia that is present there, with anti-gay slurs being thrown around like it were nothing.
Former Packer and out gay man Esera Tuaolo substantiated that this anti-gay banter happens in NFL locker rooms, as in his book Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL, Tuaolo stated “Homophobia peppered the banter. They called each other ‘f-gs,’ ‘f—ing q—rs,’ ‘fudge packers’ – they took it to the crude and graphic limits. I laughed at the gay jokes to be part of the conversation. I hid behind my laughter. Inside, I cried.” The dislike of the LGBTQ community is also rampant among NFL fans. Check any comments section on social media reporting Carl Nassib or the NFL’s pride month initiative. You’ll see support for Nassib or the LGBTQ community, but also homophobic “jokes” or insults, that have thousands of likes.
Homophobia in the NFL
In 2013 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver stated that he wouldn’t accept an open 49ers player, and said that “we (the 49ers) don’t have any gay guys on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff.” Later in Tuaolo’s memoir, he stated that “My Packer teammate Sterling Sharpe, an All-Pro receiver, confirmed this in an interview on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel when I came out. He said if the guys found out another player was gay on a Monday, he wouldn’t be able to play on Sunday. My teammates would take me out in practice. That would be the punishment for violating the NFL’s macho code. A gay player would be ‘outcast for life.’”
During pre-draft processes, NFL teams are have asked draft prospects if they are gay. This is wildly inappropriate to ask at a job interview. During the NFL’s “My Cause My Cleats” initiative, there was decent support for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes is explicitly homophobic, and their Statement of Faith states that marriage is only between a man and a woman. After Michael Sam came out, hall of fame coach Tony Dungy stated “I would not have taken him. Not because I don’t believe that Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it.”
All of these examples demonstrate that homophobia is commonplace in every facet of the NFL. The NFL has attempted to make progress in recent years, which is evident by the NFL’s pride month initiative. But the most impactful way that the NFL will become a more inclusive community is through players and coaches themselves coming out. This will demonstrate that anti-gay sentiment in NFL circles will not be tolerated.
Carl Nassib’s courage in his coming out is a large step in this process, and his strength will hopefully inspire other players and coaches who are currently in the closet to come out. Nassib also is now a role model to young closeted athletes who are scared to live their true selves. Nassib shows that there are NFL players who are open and proud about their sexuality. Carl Nassib coming out is a strong rebuke of the homophobia that is intertwined with the NFL, and his coming out will be a force to silence and end this homophobia.