It is no exaggeration to say the world was watching when Carl Nassib became the first active player on an NFL roster to come out as gay. Some watched with shock, most with support. Still, for many of us, myself included, beyond the celebration of his barrier-breaking announcement, was something deeper behind our attentive gaze, a question: What now?
A couple weeks after the initial media craze, it seemed like business as usual for the Las Vegas Raiders and the sports world as a whole. Only Carl himself will know just how much his announcement tipped the scales of acceptance and bigotry one way or the other in his locker room, on the field, and with peers or fans. As an NFL veteran, I know that most teams will go through collective obstacles, distractions and hard times, and that off-the-field problems or events can affect on-field performance. However, after last Sunday’s playoff clinching performance, we can all proudly say that Carl’s coming out was not one of those things for the Raiders.
If anything, the Las Vegas Raiders’ focus seemed to improve after finding out that one of their team leaders was a proud gay man. Nassib’s coming out preceded extreme backlash from the surfaced emails of the team’s head coach Jon Gruden. In Gruden’s emails, he used racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments and hate speech, which felt especially upsetting and ironic from the first NFL coach with an out athlete on his roster. Still, the Raiders rallied around each other and interim head coach Rich Bisaccia, whom I had the pleasure of knowing when he was the special teams coach in Dallas, and pressed on.
They pushed through even when the team’s star receiver Henry Ruggs was charged with a DUI that resulted in the tragic death of a young woman. Add these huge tragedies and disruptions into all the other things that a team faces during a season – injuries, players violating team policies or drug policies, trades, cuts, and so much more – and then factor in a season continually disrupted by the persistence of a global pandemic, it turns out that the least of this teams worries was one of their players finally being honest about who he is.
So it stands that with an openly gay player on their roster, the Las Vegas Raiders return to the playoffs for the second time in 19 years. Counter to what some have claimed for years, Carl Nassib proves that coming out is not a distraction to a team or the game but that you can win big when your team can accept and support its players. Now not only will LGBTQ+ athletes, fans, and individuals be able to see themselves represented on Sundays when the Raiders are playing on their local channel but on a national stage in the NFL playoffs. Regardless of the outcome for the Raiders during wild card weekend, it’s essential to document this moment in history, one that is a first in all the years the game has been played. Whether Carl and the Raiders become Super Bowl champions now is not a moot point because, for the first time, closeted athletes, out athletes, LGBTQ+ sports fans, and people alike can know it’s possible.
This weekend, we will see the first ever playoff game with an active LGBTQ+ player. Looking to the future, it’s a distinct thrill to know that one day we will have a queer player with a Super Bowl ring. It’s important to mark these milestones and to keep pushing forward, especially now that it’s no longer a question of if but when.
RK Russell played three NFL seasons for the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.