The NFL is ready for a gay player, and it has been for years.
I first realized it in 2012, when I interviewed a dozen current and former players about their thoughts on accepting gay people. Former Green Bay Packers running back Ahman Green has a gay brother and sister. Pro Bowler Jevon Kearse has a gay cousin. Hall of Famer Michael Irvin had a gay brother. Tennessee Titans legend Eddie George said “I don’t think it would have been a problem at all” if one of his teammates had come out to the team.
The NFL has marched in World Pride, with a float. The Minnesota Vikings have hosted conversations about LGBTQ inclusion in sports. The New England Patriots have sponsored the Gay Bowl. The Seattle Seahawks have embraced the rainbow.
When Michael Sam played in his first preseason game with the St. Louis Rams after coming out as gay, I talked with tailgaters about him. They were excited, proud that he was part of the team.
Over and over and over people in and around the league have demonstrated their support for gay athletes and LGBTQ inclusion. Earlier this year I listed 55 different efforts from the NFL, team and players — And that’s just a tiny fraction of the full list.
Yet as we at Outsports have talked about all of this for years, the response from doubters has been the one place they could go: “If it’s so great then why aren’t there any out players?”
Of course, with the announcement by Oakland Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib that he is gay, no one can say that anymore. Messages of support are pouring in for Nassib.
And they will continue to. The nonsense we’ve heard for years that the NFL isn’t ready for a gay player will be turned on its head. While naysayers have pointed to fans, players, sponsors, team owners and everyone in between as the big homophobes plaguing the league, we’re going to see that all fall apart.
Michael Sam had already given us a glimpse. What people like to forget is how much support Sam had when he came out, and well into his stint with the St. Louis Rams. It didn’t end well for Sam’s career, and people have blamed the continued lack of out NFL players in part on the day the Rams decided to cut Sam, just months after drafting him knowing he was gay.
Beyond Sam’s story, we have let people get too consumed with nonsense on Twitter and in comments on Facebook. Nassib’s news was met with plenty of “who cares” and “can’t we just stick to football,” no doubt. Yet this was a minority of reactions, despite how loud they try to be to their single-digit followers.
We also let casual homophobic language blind us to acceptance.
As we’ve said for many years, someone can use an anti-gay slur and still love their gay teammate when they come out. It sounds crazy, yet it’s a dynamic we’ve heard over and over and over again: When athletes come out, the teammate they were most afraid of is sometimes the first person to give them a hug.
Kobe Bryant taught us this years ago. He called an NBA referee a gay slur and then showed us he didn’t intend to say “I hate gay people.”
Nassib has played in at least 14 games each of his five seasons with the league. And he will play more. As he hits training camp, plays during the regular season and records sacks, we’re going to see how the NFL — and even football — has come to be a place where gay athletes are respected, accepted and even embraced.
And it’s been that way for a while.