[For this year’s annual Super Bowl series, I wanted to focus on some football figures & communities. Leading up to a special weekend tribute to some of our best current public scholarly SportsStudiers!]
On a striking and significant change, and why there still needs to be more.
I thought I had written in this space at some point about Michael Sam, the defensive lineman who in 2014 became the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team when the (then) St. Louis Rams selected him in the 7th round of the draft. I’m not finding such a prior post, but I can certainly say that I thought a lot at that time about Sam and his journey and challenges, all of which continued across a fraught and ultimately unsuccessful first year in the NFL, an even more challenging time with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, and a long hiatus from professional football for mental health reasons. (Apparently he’s now back in the game with the Barcelona Dragons of the European League of Football, serving as both a player and a coach for the team, which was nice to learn while researching this post.) While Sam’s struggles to make it in professional football are certainly due in part to football-related issues, there’s no doubt that those mental health reasons were largely due to this groundbreaking personal journey—and I can’t help but believe that that journey, and more exactly the backlash and prejudice he faced during it, made it more difficult for him to do the necessary football things to make and stay on the Rams or any NFL team.
All of which makes the current and ongoing story of NFL defensive lineman Carl Nassib that much more striking and inspiring. The two players’ personal and football journeys have at least one significant difference: selected by the Cleveland Browns in the 3rd round of the 2016 draft, Nassib had thus already been in the league for five full (and quite successful) seasons when, as part of the June 2021 Pride Month celebrations, he came out as gay on his Instagram account. Yet nonetheless, I believe that both the far more positive (or at least much less overtly negative and hateful, but I would stress the genuinely supportive notes so many players have struck) responses to Nassib’s coming out and the ways in which he has been able to continue his NFL career (and even move to a new team) with seemingly no issues reflect a striking change over this last decade. That’s a change in part in football culture, one no doubt influenced by Sam. And of course it’s also a change in American culture and society more broadly, one illustrated not only by the kinds of pop culture shifts I wrote about in this post, but also by these drastically different receptions to two openly gay NFL players within a period of just a few years.
That’s a very good thing—but as with any social progress, it’s far from the end of the story. Recent polling and studies indicate that something like 7% of Americans identify as LGBTQ; there are 1696 active players in the NFL at any given team (53 active players on each of the 32 teams), which if the percentage holds would mean that somewhere around 118 of those players would be gay or bisexual. I’m willing to grant that the culture of football (at every level it’s played) might dissuade many LGBTQ young men from becoming or staying part of it; but even so, it seems quite difficult to believe that there is only one gay player among the league’s current 1700. And the same is certainly the case with all the other major sports leagues, which as of this writing—and with the very definite exception of the WNBA, which features many LGBTQ players—have precisely one openly gay player each. As that last hyperlinked article notes, one is more than zero, so the change reflected by Nassib has been wider and is worth celebrating—but there’s plenty further to go, and I look forward to the time when a professional athlete coming out is entirely un-newsworthy.
Special tribute post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Football figures or communities you’d highlight?