The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sports used to lead social progress. Carl Nassib shows it’s now the other way around.

Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib during an NFL game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., last September. (Steven Senne/AP)

When writers for the Advocate magazine in 1975 went poking around Major League Baseball to see whether there might be a story in “players living gay lifestyles” during the first years of the gay liberation movement, they quickly met with a warning from staff at the Minnesota Twins: The writers had better stop “attempting to extend your perversion to an area of total manhood.”

Has all that much changed in the sporting world in the 4½ decades since? To listen to the video that Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib posted Monday night on his Instagram, you’d certainly think so. “What’s up, people?” he said to the camera. “I’m at my house here in West Chester, Pa. I just wanna take a quick moment to say that I’m gay.”

No juke, no flea-flicker, just “I’m gay.”

But this gimme field goal of a coming out belies a wild fact: Nassib is the first active NFL player — ever — to come out as gay. If his historic announcement was casual, it’s not because football changed. It’s because the world did. Once upon a time, sporting society helped lead the way in racial integration; now, when it comes to sexuality, it’s the rest of society dragging sports along with it.

Football, the most manly, rough-and-tumble of the sports — sorry, 1970s Minnesota Twins — has been particularly behind the times. Nassib had forebears, but they were few and far between: Michael Sam made headlines in 2014 as a draft pick who had come out, but he was cut before the season began. A number of former players have come out in retirement. Many recounted the pressures of being in the closet, and the casual (or acute) homophobia in the football world that kept them there.

A Post reporter tweeted after Nassib’s video that he had asked an NFL coach as recently as 2013 whether a gay player would ever be welcomed in the league. The coach said no, “because nobody wants to shower with a fa----.” In a sports setting that still prides itself on being “an area of total manhood” as much as it did in 1975, it’s easy to imagine how queerness might not exactly flourish.

Hints of Nassib’s brushes with that sort of toxicity appear as one gets past his video’s breezy opening: It took him 15 years to share this part of himself. He says he “agonized over this moment,” even as he thanks his NFL family for its support while he worked up the nerve. He seems to recognize the momentousness of his coming out. And given that his act of courage will steer young athletes away from depression, maybe even save lives, it is momentous.

The problem is, it shouldn’t be. Were Nassib coming out in almost any other field, the act would not be so groundbreaking. Acceptance of LGBTQ people has rocketed skyward in such a way that coming-out announcements barely register in certain corners of the country. 2020 saw a decently successful gay presidential candidate and a decently successful gay Hallmark movie. America got a gay Bachelor before it got a gay defensive end.

Nassib wishes during his video for a world where such a video isn’t even necessary. All he wants, as he takes “a quick moment” in his yard in West Chester and asks the media not to bother him too much, is a chill coming-out. He wants to be, as former NFL player Wade Davis said to The Post, “an NFL football player who is gay,” not the “gay NFL player.” The world may not yet have made it to the place Nassib hopes it will, but at least it’s in the red zone. Now, the NFL needs to get there, too.

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Carl Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay