Ryan Russell, N.F.L. Free Agent, Comes Out as Bisexual: ‘It’s So Much Better Than Hiding’


Ryan Russell shares a lot in common with many N.F.L. players: the grueling off-season training rituals documented on Instagram, the competitive fire and, yes, a nagging injury that kept him sidelined for all of last season.

But Russell, a free-agent defensive end, said in an interview on Thursday night that he was holding something back: He is bisexual. Earlier in the day, Russell opened up about his sexual orientation in a personal essay published by ESPN.

Russell, 27, who has played for the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is the only male athlete in the four major professional sports leagues to openly identify as L.G.B.T.Q.

“It’s so much better than hiding and holding it in and just kind of repressing myself,” Russell said by phone. “I think the N.F.L. is definitely ready to accept an openly L.G.B.T.Q. player.”

The sports world and prominent L.G.B.T.Q. advocates took note of Russell’s frankness about his sexual orientation. He said he received words of encouragement from a number of former teammates. There was even a Twitter shout-out from the tennis legend Billie Jean King, who is gay.

“His desire to make this process easier for L.G.B.T.Q. professional athletes in the future is inspiring,” King wrote.

Russell said he was awed by the reception.

“That was a moment, definitely a star-struck moment that she would even tweet my name,” he said. “That’s huge.”

No other athletes in the four men’s professional sports leagues — the N.F.L., N.B.A., M.L.B. and N.H.L. — are openly bisexual or gay. This is only the second time an active N.F.L. player has openly identified as L.G.B.T.Q.

“Ryan’s Russell’s decision to come out will undoubtedly have a big impact on L.G.B.T.Q. acceptance in professional sports,” Zeke Stokes, chief programs officer for the advocacy group Glaad, said in a statement on Thursday. “Everyone should be able to bring their full, authentic selves to work, and that includes the N.F.L.”

The N.F.L. and the N.F.L. Players Association did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

In 2014, the N.F.L.’s first openly gay player, Michael Sam, was drafted by the St. Louis Rams — now the Los Angeles Rams — in the seventh round. Sam’s path to the N.F.L. was widely chronicled at the time.

But Sam, an all-American at the University of Missouri and a co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference in 2013, was cut by the Rams and never played a down in the N.F.L. In 2015, he said he was stepping away from the game for “mental health” reasons after a brief stint in the Canadian Football League.

Russell said one of the people he had reached out to was Ryan O’Callaghan, a former member of the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs who last played football in 2010 and came out as gay two years ago.

“Once I made the decision to come out, there wasn’t really any second-guessing,” Russell said.

In 2013, Jason Collins became the first N.B.A. player to come out as gay, writing in a Sports Illustrated essay that he didn’t want to hide anymore.

“It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret,” wrote Collins, a first-round draft pick who spent 13 seasons in the N.B.A. before retiring. “I’ve endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time.”

While there has been a dearth of male athletes in major sports leagues who are openly L.G.B.T.Q., a number of top female athletes are openly gay, including the World Cup soccer hero Megan Rapinoe and the W.N.B.A. players Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne.

“You’re not going to be hearing me call myself a trailblazer,” Russell said.

Russell missed all of the 2018 season because of a shoulder injury that he sustained in the 2017 season, when he played in 14 games for the Buccaneers, seven of them as a starter. It was his second season in Tampa after spending his rookie year with the Cowboys, which drafted Russell, then at Purdue, in the fifth round.

Russell said the past year had been transformative for him after the death of a close friend and a move to Los Angeles, where he has been writing poetry and allowing himself to become more open and vulnerable.

He said that if even one little boy saw him on television and gained more self-confidence, the experience would be worth it. Russell said he had visited the San Francisco 49ers and was optimistic that he would sign with a team for the upcoming N.F.L. season, which starts on Thursday. He said he didn’t think his coming out would create a distraction.

“Good will come from it,” he said, adding, “If nothing else, I will be able to clear my own conscience and go into a N.F.L. locker room” and a help a team win.


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