Carl Nassib has just become the only openly gay active NFL player. It won’t be for long.

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I have heard a lot of coming out stories over the years. This is the only story I can confidently tell that we all tell, without fail, on a first date with another queer person.

I have been to meetings where people have said that they have been evicted from their homes by families to whom they still do not speak. I have met people who have gone through conversion therapy after coming out. While my own story is not as traumatic as theirs, my own anxieties of not knowing whether people will like me or not continue from there until now.

But I’ve never heard anyone tell me a story like the one about Carl Nassib’s coming out. Nassib, a defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders, took to Instagram and in a few words changed the story: “What’s up, folks. … I just want to take a moment to say I’m gay.

With this relaxed, almost disappointing statement, Nassib has shattered a glass ceiling that has weighed heavily on men’s professional sports for years.

At a time when we see LGBTQ people both in and out of public view stepping out at historic rates, Nassib’s decision is the most seismic yet this year. It forces a conversation about queer inclusion and acceptance in a part of the American pop culture space that continually struggles for one. But looking back on all the times our hopes were raised to be dashed, I hope Nassib’s story is different – and that we aren’t putting too much on his broad shoulders in the process.

There have been a small number of major league players who have come out of the closet after retiring from their respective games over the past decade, including 28 in the NFL alone. But progress has been slow compared to other cultural touchstones like the movie industry or Hollywood music or even the staid world of politics. So we have yet to see an openly gay person play a full season in one of America’s Big Four Sports Leagues – the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL.

There have been those who have come together, each making history in their own way, but not quite ending the stigma that permeates American sports culture. When basketball player Jason Collins came out near the end of his career in 2013, he became the first major league male athlete to play professionally while being openly gay. Its outing on the cover of Sports Illustrated was, and continues to be, iconic – but it didn’t last very long. After a lengthy free agency, Collins signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets in March 2014, followed by two renewals. He retired in 2014 after playing 22 games with the Nets while away, less than half of the full season. The conversation about being LGBTQ in the NBA calmed down pretty quickly.

The following year, college football star Michael Sam came out before being drafted into the NFL. The moment was greeted with even more excitement. Sam had just started his career, having won the Defensive Player of the Year award in the Southeastern College Football Hyper-Competitive Conference. The hope was that he would enter the season both as an aspiring star and as an openly gay man – perhaps even with his partner by his side – becoming a symbol of how far he has come.

It will be another five long years before former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Ryan Russell turns bisexual in an ESPN trial. Since then he has become the most visible athlete in the NFL fighting to create change alongside retired athletes like Wade Davis Jr., who consults for the NFL. Like Nassib, Russell had previously played in the NFL while in the closet. But as a current free agent, he’s at the mercy of league franchises to give him a chance to replay. Russell is still looking for a team to recruit him 22 months after the publication of his essay.

In our celebrations of Nassib, we have to recognize how long he must have sat with this secret – 15 agonizing years. We cannot forget the culture of silence of a majority of NFL players as they attempt to pretend that there have not been gays playing next to them in their careers. That unspoken denial has remained constant as these few players – a majority of whom are queer black men – try again and again to normalize their place in the big leagues. Because even with Nassib, while we’ve seen a few players on the Raiders and the NFL more broadly tweet their support, most players will probably refuse to even acknowledge these men. When they finally do, that’s when we can expect an even bigger change than what Nassib is currently introducing.


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