clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Nassib is not first gay NFL player by a mile

About a dozen former NFL players have felt comfortable coming out after retiring, but only two have come out before or during their NFL careers. It’s not that there haven’t been gay athletes in the NFL before; they never felt welcomed and accepted, so they kept their sexuality secret.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, Raiders’ defensive end, Carl Nassib, posted a coming out announcement on his Instagram account. After 15 years of holding his truth inside, not only did he tell the world he was gay, he also put his money where his mouth is by donating a generous $100,000 to the Trevor Project, a foundation that addresses suicide prevention in the LGBTQ community.

Saints fans may remember Carl’s older brother Ryan whom the Saints signed and later released in 2017. The younger Nassib is being hailed as the first openly gay NFL athlete, but it’s important to remember that he is by far the first gay person to play professional football, nor is he the first to make this announcement.

Prior to the 2014 NFL Draft, Missouri defensive end, Michael Sam, made the same statement. “I am an openly, proud gay man,” Sam said. “I understand how big this is. It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL.”

Even though Sam posted ten sacks his senior year at Missouri, the SEC defensive end was barely drafted in the seventh round by the Rams, and was eight picks away from not being selected at all. He couldn’t crack the Rams 53-man roster and never progressed farther than the practice squad for the Cowboys before a brief stint in the CFL before retiring for good.

After a quick comparison, the college careers of Sam and Nassib appeared eerily similar. Both started off slow in college and finished strong by blowing their previous stats out of the water their senior years.

Sam posted seven sacks and 63 total tackles his first three college seasons before exploding his senior season for 10 sacks and 47 total tackles. An un-recruited walk-on at Penn State, Nassib posted two sacks and 18 total tackles his sophomore and junior years combined before finally starting under a new coach senior year and equally exploding for 15.5 sacks and 46 total tackles his senior year.

Nassib’s size, speed, agility, and power are all slightly superior to Sam’s, but I can’t help but wonder if Sam’s sexuality hadn’t been under the microscope as well, would the NFL have given him the multiple years it gave Nassib to prove his ability?

Remember, Nassib was cut after two unsuccessful years with the Browns, who drafted him in the third round. He was able to land on the Buccaneers and play his way into a three year free-agent contract with the Raiders.

Nassib is currently in year two of that $25 million contract with the Raiders, in which he has actually underperformed since leaving the Bucs. He waited until his fifth year in the league and third contract to feel comfortable enough to make his sexuality publicly known.

Sam, a Black man, who came out before even being drafted, didn’t have the same luxury of perceived job stability Nassib, a white man, enjoys now. Sam has made less than $90,000 playing professional football. Nassib, by contrast, has made over $12.5 million in four years in the NFL. If Nassib ever gets cut, he’s already made generational wealth to keep him financial stable.

Besides, if you watched Hard Knocks, you’d know all Nassib or any savvy earner needed to make a fortune was $1 million anyway...

Sam made the same brave announcement as Nassib over five years ago, but for multiple reasons, the sports world wasn’t as prepared to welcome them both equally. For one, this quote proved to be horribly and historically wrong.

Please don’t get me wrong: I think the visibility and representation of LGBTQ folks in sports is paramount to furthering understanding, compassion, and acceptance while also offering hope and possibility to young queer athletes. I’m genuinely thankful for Nassib’s inner strength and leadership. I hope more male athletes will soon follow.

I am not going to forget the fact, however, that a Black athlete showed this same strength and leadership five years ago and he was discarded, while this white athlete gets to do the same thing and receive praise, retweets, matched donations, and a top-selling jersey to boot. If Sam had an NFL jersey, I would have bought one.

Always the class act, Sam took the high road and offered his support for Nassib as well.

Judging from Nassib’s elite jersey sales this week following his announcement, the NFL fan base has been simply clamoring for an LGBTQ athlete to represent them in America’s most popular major sport. However, judging from the limited amount of vocal support he has received from actual teammates and opponents, the NFL players, themselves, still have a long way to go on the journey of normalizing human sexuality.

As Hall of Famer Warren Moon reminded us, Nassib and Sam are far from the first gay athletes to play in the NFL. They were just the first who were so very brave enough to say so in a hostile working environment where it’s never been acceptable to be gay.

I want to give a major shout out to all of the LGBTQ leaders in all facets of life who have paved the way for our latest generations to grow up in a more accepting and compassionate world. As USA soccer star Megan Rapinoe said, “Go gays. You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there.”