'Perfect example of LGBTQ pride': Carl Nassib's brave act continues to impact the NFL
Almost one year ago, former Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib became the first active player to publicly come out as gay. His courageous action opened the door for others to follow.
Later this month, it will have been one year since Carl Nassib publicly came out as gay and became the first active player in NFL history to do so.
In the near-year since, Nassib, as a defensive end for the Raiders, was a key piece of a team that overcame incredible adversity to make the playoffs. And the Raiders, per Nassib, gave him “nothing but love and support.”
He donated $100,000 to The Trevor Project, a non-profit that supports the LGBTQ community by providing crisis intervention, suicide prevention services and resources for mental health issues. The NFL matched the donation and joined Nassib in helping direct others to the organization’s website, which saw a 350% spike in traffic in the days following Nassib’s coming out.
What also came in that near-year was — importantly — the normalcy of a football player playing a football season. Nassib was just another defender, another pass rusher, another teammate. And through it all, he was granted the privilege that’s inherently given to all his heterosexual peers: the normalcy of being himself.
The month of June is Pride Month. And even though Nassib, 29, is currently a free agent after the Raiders released him in March, the normalcy of his path and everything that came after is worthy of renewed celebration for the doors it opened for others to follow.
“Carl Nassib is the perfect example of LGBTQ pride,” Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports.com, told USA TODAY Sports. “Pride Month is taking pride in who you are in the community that you’re a part of. It’s taking pride in your accomplishments, your contributions to society. National Coming Out Day is in October. Pride Month is not about coming out. Pride Month is about being out.”
The next step, in the NFL and in other men’s professional leagues, is for more active players to feel comfortable enough to publicly come out. Nassib is but one player who merely felt the conditions were right to do so.
That leaves room for teams, their coaches and their captains to work on the environments and cultures inside team facilities.
“I don’t think there’s a lot homophobia in men’s professional locker rooms,” Zeigler said. “I think there’s a lot of overt heterosexuality. And when you’re a gay athlete and so much of the chatter is about sex with women, you don’t necessarily feel like you belong in that conversation. It’s being thoughtful about language that you use.
“Some people in the community disagree, but at this point, I think the most important thing we can see is more athletes coming out because then we can move past all of this. Not to put pressure on anybody, but that’s the reality of it. That’s where we’re at today.”
Zeigler added that the issues facing closeted athletes — familial pressures, conflicts with religious doctrine, desires for privacy — are not unlike ones that all closeted individuals face.
Representation, therefore, becomes a crucial element in the path toward speedier inclusion. But in professional men’s sports, it’s essential that the representation is visible and amplified in a way that does not other the athlete.
“Carl’s coming out was an important step for him to be himself and a historic one for the NFL and fans of football to see that LGBTQ people are a part of every community, and that includes in sports,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, the world's largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization wrote in an email to USA TODAY Sports.
“His sexual orientation, however, isn’t the only interesting part of who he is so it was actually remarkable to see this wasn’t sensationalized throughout the season. We do see lots of coverage about players’ personal lives and families, so Carl and other out athletes should always be included in those profiles and campaigns.”
While Nassib participated in his mandatory sessions with reporters last season and was engaging, he has opted for privacy from the public eye and has declined interview requests, including one for this story.
There’s also representation outreach that can be done at the team level to boost inclusion efforts. The Miami Dolphins are setting the model.
Through the franchise’s Football UNITES program, they have hosted year-round events and programs to encourage inclusion. In October, before a game against the Atlanta Falcons, they held their first-ever Pride Day, which included a tailgate mixer and an LGBTQ identity and representation panel. In 2019, the team announced that the spires of Hard Rock Stadium would be lit up in rainbow flag colors to celebrate that week’s Miami Beach Pride festival and to honor the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. They co-hosted an event called “Out in the Open” in March 2019, alongside the tennis tournament the Miami Open.
The Dolphins also updated their handbook and code of conduct after a meeting with Equality Florida to include “gender identity” in the document’s equal employment section.
Progress followed by hate
But in the near-year since Nassib has helped make the NFL and society a more welcoming place, something else is taking place. Certain states are engaged in a widespread effort to undermine LGBTQ rights in the form of hostile legislation.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law in March. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott cited an opinion by Attorney General Ken Paxton in a February order that declared that gender-affirming care for transgender youth should be investigated as instances of child abuse.
These are just two of hundreds. And while some teams have been hesitant to get involved in LGBTQ activism, even the smallest of steps, Zeigler said, could have long-lasting effects.
“I don’t think there is some magic wand,” Zeigler said. “Obviously if you have a platform, say, if you’re the star quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it sure would be nice if he said something positive about the LGBTQ community instead of hiding behind social media in 22 years as the face of the NFL. That’d be nice.
“Tom Brady literally was in the state of Massachusetts in the middle of the heat of the conversation about same-sex marriage and now he is in Florida and he has never publicly uttered a word about the community. I cannot believe for a second, that with a supermodel wife, as a family, they don’t have some LGBTQ friends. I would encourage people like Tom Brady to speak up about this.”
A message sent to Brady’s agent giving him the chance to respond was not returned.
There are organizations, however, who specialize in LGBTQ advocacy in sports to make it easy for straight, cisgender athletes to get involved.
Athlete Ally seeks to end homophobia and transphobia in sports by engaging athletes and leaders to champion LGBTQ rights and equity. Its initiative, Playing for Pride, launches in June and allows athlete ambassadors to speak throughout the month about their support for the organization and the LGBTQ community.
One of Athlete Ally’s biggest supporters in the NFL sphere has been Cleveland Browns fullback Johnny Stanton. Last season, Stanton chose to partner with Athlete Ally for the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign and auctioned off the cleats he wore with Athlete Ally’s logo and a pride rainbow color scheme across the front of the cleat.
“All these organizations out there, we are fighting so hard, and we need teams to stand with us,” Athlete Ally director of communications Joanna Hoffman told USA TODAY Sports. “We need teams to be speaking out. Even if that’s just a tweet on a team’s social media account saying, ‘We support the LGBTQ community here in X state and we believe that everybody should be treated fairly,’ something as simple as that goes such a long way in communicating the values of the team, but also mobilizing fans to do the same. These teams have such a profound influence on their fans. And fans are voters.”
Hoffman took it a step further and encouraged teams to focus on coach education to establish effective language and culture-building strategies, like what Zeigler mentioned, that boost inclusion efforts. An example, Hoffman said, could be for coaches to use time during team meetings in June to talk about the significance of Pride Month.
“Instead of putting the onus on athletes to come out,” Hoffman said, “we should continue to shift toward efforts of making it a safe space so that athletes can come out.”
Ellis echoed that and encouraged teams to enact changes like the ones the Dolphins have, to “implement and enforce inclusive workplace policies, codes of conduct, fan experiences and team programming.” Ellis said it was important to do this work throughout the entire year, not just during LGBTQ tentpole celebrations, like Pride Month.
“These authentically communicate messages of acceptance for LGBTQ people,” Ellis wrote. “The leagues will inevitably see more people come out because it’s been reinforced that they are welcome, belong, and wanted there.”
The NFL season is fewer than 100 days away. Nassib, who combined for 21 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits and one forced fumble in 2021, has not given any indication that he wants to step away from football. The next important signpost toward normalization and inclusion, Zeigler said, is when Nassib gets that call and is signed by another team.
“We have done a disservice to men’s athletes and society by continuing to paint men’s sports as homophobic,” Zeigler said. “I’ve said for years now that men’s sports in the United States are widely accepting of gay people, that every professional league in North America is more than ready to embrace openly-gay athletes. I think the beauty of what Carl did is he shined a giant spotlight on that very dynamic — that even in the NFL, the most powerful cultural institution in America, gay men are accepted. They can succeed, as Carl did. Their team can succeed with them on it, as the Raiders did. That, to me, is the beauty of Carl’s journey over the last year.
“But his story is not over. Not by a long shot.”