Cyd Zeigler, an LGBTQ sportswriter and founder of Outsports.com, has been saying for years that the NFL is ready to embrace an openly gay player.
The announcement Monday by Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib that he is gay not only offers validation, Zeigler said, but is the perfect example of how far society has come.
“I don’t want this to get lost — just the way he did that video, the way he smiled, the way he talked about how wonderful his life is,” said Zeigler, a Harwich native now living in Los Angeles. “He talked so much about the struggles of athletes, and the incredible joy and relief they feel when they’re just their true selves.
“And you saw it in his face and his voice and his words. He said his life is essentially perfect. It was just beautifully done.”
Nassib made his announcement in a video on Instagram, earning praise for his bravery but also for the matter-of-factness of it. He also announced a $100,000 donation to The Trevor Project, an organization that provides suicide prevention services to the LGBTQ community.
“I feel an immense responsibility to help in any way I can,” Nassib wrote. “Studies have shown that all it takes is one accepting adult to decrease the risk of an LGBTQ kid attempting suicide by 40 percent.”
Nassib is not the first player to reveal his orientation while being part of an NFL team. Michael Sam famously came out before being drafted in the seventh round of the 2014 draft, and he participated in training camp and practice squads with the Rams and Cowboys. Several players also came out after retiring, including former Patriots offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan.
But this fall Nassib will be the first openly gay athlete to play in an NFL game. He is an established player, with 20.5 sacks over five seasons, and he has $9.25 million in fully guaranteed salary for this fall.
“The fact that he’s a multiyear veteran, guaranteed contract — he’s going to play, and I look forward to continuing to celebrate that,” Zeigler said.
Nassib’s announcement was met with widespread support across the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell praised him for “courageously” sharing his story and said, “We share his hope that someday soon statements like his will no longer be newsworthy as we march toward full equality for the LGBTQ+ community.”
The Raiders proudly shared Nassib’s story, and the Twitter accounts of the other 31 teams offered retweets and support. Raiders owner Mark Davis and coach Jon Gruden praised Nassib in separate interviews.
Star players such as J.J. Watt and Saquon Barkley tweeted their support, as did former players such as Julian Edelman and Warren Moon. Raiders teammates including Darius Stills, Solomon Thomas, Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, and Johnathan Hankins gave quotes or commented on the Instagram post that they support their “brother” and were proud of Nassib.
“We got his back 100 percent,” Ferrell told The Athletic.
But the overall response from fellow players across the league wasn’t exactly overwhelming. Other than Watt and Barkley, not many star players made a big show of support. I reached out to one current player Tuesday to talk on or off the record about having an openly gay player in the locker room, and the player said he wouldn’t touch the topic.
Sam, who was part of the NFL for the 2014 season and spent some of 2015 with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, had a mixed experience with pro football. Speaking at the University of New Mexico in 2019, Sam told a crowd that “the NFL gave me a raw deal” and that one Rams teammate called him a negative name shortly after he was drafted.
In interviews over the last several years, Sam has expressed varying levels of regret over coming out before he was drafted. Speaking in 2020 at the University of Notre Dame, he said his experience with the Alouettes “ruined it for me.”
“It was a totally terrible experience,” said Sam, who now is a professional speaker. “Everyone was against me. They chose not to shower because I was there and they wouldn’t have eye contact with me.”
That was only six years ago. But Zeigler says that the sports world is a different place in 2021 and believes unequivocally that Nassib will be welcomed by his peers.
“I talk to [gay] high school players and college players; they tell me their teammates are accepting,” Zeigler said. “And the idea that [the NFL] is going to be harder than a high school locker room in Texas or a college locker room in Kansas is ludicrous to me.”
The somewhat muted response from players on social media suggests that not everyone in the locker room is going to be so supportive of Nassib or other gay players.
Then again, that’s perhaps to be expected in a football locker room with 65-plus players.
“ ‘Everyone’ doesn’t matter,” Zeigler said. “Everyone doesn’t get along in the locker room. That’s just not how it works. But all you’ve got to do is figure out, ‘Can I get along with this person and can we be teammates?’ And the answer is going to be a resounding yes.”
Zeigler is convinced that Nassib’s announcement will be a watershed moment for gay athletes and that he will be widely accepted.
“For me it’s a huge moment, because it validates everything I’ve been trying to tell people for years,” he said. “That the vast majority of fans, players, the league front office, the teams, the media, are all so ready to embrace somebody like him.”