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The impact of Carl Nassib’s message is profound, but the normalcy was striking, LGBTQ advocates say

Carl Nassib made NFL history Monday, and he did so looking calm and comfortable. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Cyd Zeigler was driving through Nevada on Monday afternoon when he got a phone call. “Did you see the text I sent you?” the man on the other end asked. “An NFL player just came out on Instagram.”

Zeigler, the co-founder of and a leading voice on sexuality and sports, didn’t believe it. An NFL player? Coming out on Instagram? No way.

“Pull over,” the man told him. “Watch the video.”

Zeigler pulled to the side of the road and watched the video posted by Carl Nassib, a defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders who announced to the world that afternoon that he is gay. Nassib is the first active NFL player — the only one to have played regular season games and to still be under contract with a team — to be openly gay.

Zeigler, who has penned many coming-out stories for athletes on his website, cried.

“I cried because of two reasons,” he explained. “First, I think of the kids really struggling and what an example for those kids, to have a guy at one of the most storied franchises in all of American sports come out, talk about LGBTQ youth and do it — and this is the kicker — with a smile and an ease in his backyard and talk about just how much joy he’s gotten since he’s been out. We talk so much about the homophobia in sports, and it’s so overblown because we don’t talk nearly enough about the incredible joy and relief and support people feel when they take this leap.”

Nassib, in the brief video recorded at his home in West Chester, Pa., appeared natural and comfortable in sharing he’s gay. He spoke about the support and love he has received from family and friends, and from the NFL and its players. He turned a conversation that in the past may have been perceived as controversial or wrought with fear into a moment of personal celebration.

Zeigler’s website was among the first to write about Nassib’s announcement, but the news rapidly went viral, eliciting supportive tweets and statements from Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (a teammate of Nassib’s at Penn State), NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, multiple NFL teams and nonprofits, including GLAAD.

Not long after, Nassib’s jersey became the top seller for the online retailer Fanatics. The league matched Nassib’s donation of $100,000 to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on preventing suicide among LGBTQ+ youth.

And Tuesday brought a message on Twitter from President Biden, who praised Nassib and Kumi Yokoyama, a women’s soccer player who recently came out as a transgender man: “I’m so proud of your courage. Because of you, countless kids around the world are seeing themselves in a new light today.”

The impact of Nassib’s video and adjoining written message is far-reaching, other gay athletes said, but the normalcy of the historic moment was striking.

Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib announced June 21 on Instagram that he is gay, making him the first active NFL player to come out. (Video: Reuters)

“My first thought was, ‘This feels like the natural maturation of what we’ve been witnessing with athletes in the social justice sphere in general,’ ” said Wade Davis, a former NFL cornerback who came out as gay in 2012, nearly nine years after he retired. “I would say that the conversations that have been had around race, around gender, sexual orientation are connected. Because even me as a Black, gay man, I was never able to talk about race without talking about my sexual orientation, and I feel that we’re in a moment where athletes are recognizing they’re not just the power of their voice but their own individual power to influence where leagues are going.”

For some, the revelation that Nassib is the first active NFL player to come out was the surprise. In 2014, former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam revealed that he is gay. He was drafted months later by the St. Louis Rams but played only in the preseason before landing on the practice squad of the Dallas Cowboys. He retired in 2015, citing mental health reasons.

Before Carl Nassib, Michael Sam was the NFL’s first openly gay draft pick. He never played a regular season game.

Cameron Weiss, Sam’s agent at the time, remembers his coming-out as a mostly positive experience, but it cast a magnifying glass on the pre-draft process.

“There was so much attention paid to ‘Well, can he play this game because he’s gay?’ He was the SEC defensive player of the year. Yeah, he can play professional football,” said Brad Thorson, a former offensive lineman who came out as gay in 2014, some three years into retirement. “But there was so much hyper-focus on whether it was a distraction in the locker room and all this B.S.”

Though Thorson remembers the support he received after his announcement, he also remembers the fear.

“I really think the world has changed so dramatically in the last decade, and so much of it has to do with just people coming out,” Thorson said. “... Maybe I’m misremembering a decade ago, but I just don’t think we would have been in this place.”

Joanna Lohman, a former midfielder for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Washington Spirit and the U.S. national team, concurs, and she had a similar reaction to Nassib’s announcement. It was surprising but also not so, historic but also casual.

Lohman came out when she was 21 and received an outpouring of support from fans and teammates. Her acceptance and her comfort with her sexuality inspired her to become an activist to create safe environments for LGBTQ+ athletes.

“It just inspired me to continue to raise my hand and to be a voice for so many who I feel are forced into silence because they live in an area or work in a profession where they can’t be their authentic selves,” she said.

Lohman shares a belief held by former Raiders executive Amy Trask that the significance of Nassib’s announcement cannot be understated, even if it seemed that it was only a matter of time before an NFL player came out.

“When we talk about bold, important, powerful, significant moments, we’re talking about the significance to society, and that’s important,” Trask said. “But I’m also thinking about how significant what he did will be to individuals — kids and grown-ups.”

Jason Wright, the president of the Washington Football Team, viewed Nassib’s announcement as courageous. Wright’s sister, Allison, is a public defender who was a staff attorney for GLAAD and advocates for the LGBTQ+ community.

“The main drivers of acceptance, or the ability to navigate through limited acceptance, are visible role models,” Jason Wright said. “So in our sport, for somebody to be on an active NFL roster and be that visible role model, it’s literally going to save lives.”

Zeigler will continue to focus on the story that often gets lost: the one of celebration and support. As he made his way into Las Vegas on Monday, Zeigler turned on the radio to gauge the reaction to Nassib’s announcement. He heard comments similar to those from fans tailgating ahead of Sam’s first preseason game with St. Louis in 2014.

“It was the same thing I heard from the Vegas radio: ‘We’re so proud. This is so cool,’ ” Zeigler said. “... And that’s what really struck me about [Nassib’s video]. I think it’s part of the message and it’s part of the message that nobody’s really talking about.

“Just look at him. This is not a pained person. This is the person who is ready to live the rest of his life. He’s excited.”

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