In women’s sports it’s long been understood and accepted that a high percentage of participants happen to be lesbian. It’s baked in to the background, the collective understanding of what it means to be a female athlete at the highest level. My friend who played professional tennis for a minute in 2000s casually estimated about half the women on tour were gay.
On a local level, Seattle Sports Power Couple A is without dispute Russell Wilson and Ciara, the horniest straight people you ever met anonymously on social media. And then, in a twist as beautiful as it is unlikely, Couple B pairs the most decorated women’s basketball player in recent memory with the most visible women’s soccer player in recent memory. Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe’s relationship isn’t controversial, it’s simply part of the scenery. It’s not news, regular, cable, or TMZ-style. It just is.
Well, as they say, the WNBA is not the NFL, and football is America’s tough manlyman sport. (If they don’t say that, they should start immediately.) It was a big deal when college star Michael Sam came out before the 2014 draft — a big deal that fizzled somewhat when he failed to make a roster and washed out of the league.
Now, after his announcement on June 21, 2021, smack dab in the middle of Pride Month (!), Carl Nassib’s name is going to take its place alongside other athletic trailblazers. (Of the non-Portland variety.)
Others will write, or have written already, about how the mere presence of an active gay NFL player will inspire kids struggling with their sexuality, provide a role model for those who lack one, and how sooner or later this will breach the dam of silence for other pro football players. Nassib himself said he aims to do what he can to cut down on suicides by LGBTQ+ teens, which is the real epidemic this country faces now that COVID-19 has been a little bit tamed.
Nassib’s post and the preceding paragraph is full of stuff dear to my heart. My extended family members who are trans and non-binary go through a lot of shit every single day, just for trying to be the best versions of themselves, like we all do. The unnecessary difficulty of their path is, for lack of a better word, heartbreaking. So with your permission, I’d like to examine the other side of the coin. What does Nassib stand to accomplish against the negative forces of homophobia?
I mean, it’s not like a part-time Raider with 20.5 career sacks is gonna end hate. The courageous actions of a defensive end playing American Football in Las Vegas, Nevada, of all fuckin’ places, won’t make Other Football fans in Italy or Mexico quit chanting their anti-gay chants and slurring their anti-gay slurs. Nothing Nassib does will make life-deficient social media user RollTidePods69 stop posting block-worthy nonsense like, “I’m finished with the NFL, count me out” for like-minded bigots to agree with.
You’d have to be the most gullible flavor of naive to think one athlete coming out will repair and reroute the homophobic current that runs through men’s sports even more virulently than in society at large. Carl Nassib didn’t suddenly normalize gay athletes with the wave of a magic Instagram wand. Or filter! But he did take the conversation and suddenly, forcefully, steer and push it, like a rookie right tackle on his heels, where it needed pushing: toward abnormalizing homophobia even more.
The last four decades have been all about normalizing the presence of our gay brothers and sisters in greater America, whether it be in entertainment, boardrooms, classrooms, politics. Wherever. Everywhere. Everywherever.
We’ve witnessed a resounding, albeit uneven and painfully overdue, transformation of modern society, in favor of acceptance, in so many places. Now it’s time to take another step.
What Nassib and those who follow his lead can accomplish together, is to permanently banish homophobes to the very margins of the game. He and the teams that supported him publicly, underpinned by a league that “came out” on his side, can mindfully and intentionally create a culture where anti-gay punchlines are out of bounds in the locker room. That can happen, even in football. Nassib’s move can accelerate change.
We’re allowed to have a future where teams block Facebook commenters for homophobic posts. Where it becomes even more socially unacceptable to complain about a player’s sexual orientation. Where you’re consistently ridiculed, and eventually ignored, for being a homophobe. Where there are consequences for being a hateful asshole. Where the daily aggressions against our vulnerable friends and family are drowned out with expressions of love and support.
Nassib talks about being an accepting adult and the difference that makes. Part of outnumbering and out-speaking the unaccepting adults is for the rest of us to turn up our volume, to drown out the messages that tear down with words and actions that uplift. Words and actions that at the end of day, do nothing less than save lives.
You barely hear it today, but “gay” as a pejorative was everywhere in the last millennium. In our music, on our school bus rides, on our sports fields, in our movies, and constantly in our juvenile attempts at humor. It still happens, to be sure; heard the term used that way a few weeks ago, and nobody in the room spoke up. I should’ve, but I chickened out and let the moment pass.
Maybe Nassib’s straightforward and unapologetic words — “What’s up people, I just wanted to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now” — will give more people, myself included, the temerity to banish homophobia, in all its forms, to the outermost edges of sports, where it can shrivel up and die a most welcome and private death. Maybe. Why not?