Carl Nassib: Why It Matters
By Rob Ward
Monday was a historic day for football as Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib announced that he is gay, becoming the first active NFL player ever to do so. Rob Ward shares why this is such an important moment for the visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in sport:
I’d made it my mission to get to sleep before midnight. This time of year often brings with it some rather alcohol inspired weekends, and the previous weekend was no different. The easing of lockdown, the flowing of good beer and the feast of football that is Euro 2020 (despite it being 2021). Suffice to say I was ready for bed come Monday evening. Having messed around with my Fantasy Euros team (nerd alert) who had hit top spot in my mini league following a barnstorming Gini Wijnaldum performance, I was ready for some shut-eye.
And then the dreaded ping! Do you check the message or wait for the morning? I checked the message. It was The Athletic: Raiders’ Carl Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay.
There goes my early night.
For a moment I stared at the screen in disbelief. In my head the letters ‘NFL’ had rearranged themselves into a sporting organization I didn’t recognise, and the word gay had somehow lost its meaning. I think it’s important to stress that, whilst to many people who do not identify as LGBTQ+, there may be a sense of inevitability about somebody being ready to declare their sexuality in 2021; to those of us who do, this is akin to breaking down the walls of Jericho.
It is also important to realise some people will wonder ‘why does it matter? We have gay marriage, we have equality, right?’ Allow me a moment to explore this.
Until Monday, there were no openly gay men in any of America’s major four sports. In the UK, there isn’t an openly gay man competing in any division of the football league. In 2014, Michael Sam of the Missouri Tigers came out prior to the NFL draft and was taken in the seventh round by the St Louis Rams. One year later, Sam retired from the NFL citing mental health reasons.
There are numerous sporting heroes I could list who have made homophobic comments in the past and had them dismissed as being part and parcel of the fabric of old school masculinity that engulfs the sporting world. Tyson Fury, perhaps the most high-profile example in recent years, was taken to task for a short while back in 2015 around the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. The UK went on to vote him fourth on the list and he is now a national hero.
Forgive us if in the LGBTQ+ community, we have been somewhat skeptical for a while now about the likelihood of anyone sticking their neck out and braving the backlash. The backlash of sponsors, the backlash of religious zealots and the backlash of people who use the veil of respectable family values to weakly disguise their homophobia.
What Carl Nassib has done is incredibly important in accelerating the conversation that society has been having for decades about LGBTQ+ visibility, but that the world of sport has stubbornly refused to engage with. Sure, we have had Rainbow Laces and other such initiatives and I had come to accept that baby steps had to be the way. Nassib now removes any hiding place for those still uncomfortable in engaging in the discussion.
He gives young LGBTQ+ fans a role model. He gives the younger me a person to look up to in my world. Openly gay TV personalities are great, but to gay sports fans what we really want is someone who reflects us in the sport we so love.
But most importantly for me it’s about the impact that this has on a certain type of sports fan. We all know the types. Draconian, knuckle-dragging alpha males. Toxic masculinity. Aggressively straight. Everything is just banter. And, most of all, painfully, painfully unfunny.
Unfortunately, I was in the presence of such a group in the pub on Sunday night. At one point, amidst the usual ‘banter’, I heard one lad call his mate a ‘f****t’. His mate retorted, with mocking contempt, ‘you can’t say that, it’s Pride month’.
Suddenly I was right back in the closet. Hearing scorn and bile thrown at people like me. You are somehow lesser than us. Why? Well, because you happen to find a different sex attractive. What, really? Yup. Sorry son. That’s the hand you’ve been dealt.
What Carl Nassib did yesterday showed more bottle than any quarterback performing in the clutch, any golfer sinking that fifteen footer to win a major or any England player who will step forward at the Euros and take a penalty when that inevitable shootout arrives.
Because Nassib knows there will be a media frenzy, the aforementioned backlash and he knows he is going into battle with this army of uber-macho chest puffers. But he also knows that in becoming the first player to come out in the NFL he is sending ripples through the sporting world. Ripples that will encourage others to follow, ripples that will encourage the NFL and other such sporting organisations to consider how they are making the environment they govern a safe place for queer athletes and, most importantly, ripples that will make men like the homophobes I overheard on Sunday think deep and hard.
So often these types of men have never had to deal with men whose sexuality is different to their own. What Carl Nassib did changes that. More will follow, of that I am now confident, whereas before I still questioned that possibility.
So when people ask me ‘but why does it matter?’, this is my answer.
Thank you Carl. You have the love and respect of us all.
ROB IS A LOVER OF ALL THINGS 49ERS AND HOST OF THE COLLAPSING POCKET PODCAST IN WHICH HE, SIMON CARROLL AND SAM AKROYD BUTT-FUMBLE THEIR WAY THROUGH THE WORLD OF THE NFL. AWAY FROM SPORT, ROB IS A PROFESSIONAL WRITER AND PERFORMER. HIT HIM UP ON TWITTER @ROBWARDRW!