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NFL should use Nassib announcement to increase visibility of LGBT community

Out-Law Analysis | 15 Jul 2021 | 2:19 pm | 4 min. read

The recent announcement by American football player Carl Nassib that he is gay should act as a catalyst for the National Football League (NFL) to create a wider culture of acceptance of LGBT players within its world.

Nassib became the first active player in the NFL to publicly come out as a gay man in late June. While this is an important moment in breaking down stigma, increasing representation and visibility of the LGBTQ+ community within the world of male professional sport, the fact that it caused such a huge media frenzy shows there is still a long way to go in achieving visibility and equality in male dominated sporting industries.

Indeed Nassib himself expressed, in his Instagram video announcement, that he was doing this so that that one day there would be no need for a “whole coming-out process”.

No openly gay player has previously played a regular season in the NFL, although 15 players have come out after retiring from the league. Dave Kopay was the first NFL player to come out in 1975 after retiring from a nine year career.

It remains problematic that Nassib felt he had to make an announcement about his sexuality. However, this could be the catalyst that pushes the NFL to do more to create a wider culture of acceptance of LGBT players within the world of American football.

There are many benefits to creating an LGBT-friendly culture. To begin with, players perform better when they are able to be their true selves and are not hiding their sexual orientation.

A more inclusive culture could also help the NFL and other sports leagues to attract and retain talented aspiring or current athletes as well as attracting fans.

Sports organisations need to work to build a culture of diversity and visibility and support employees and athletes, and make positive steps before an employee raises the issue or a complaint. Culture is increasingly important to enable organisations to be an employer of choice and there could be reputational damage in the future if they are not providing an open and inclusive culture now.

Technology can be used to support employees in relation to this. In particular, it can be used to find and take immediate action, for example by targeting offensive remarks on social media.

Sports bodies can also use their own social media platforms to promote inclusive and diverse practices and beliefs while condemning non-inclusive practices and beliefs. For example, the decision by the NFL and others to change their social media avatars and logos to rainbow colours to celebrate Pride Month in June sends a strong message to the wider public, fans and players about sporting bodies’ support of the LGBT community.

The NFL also has a dedicated Pride section on its website to highlight LGBT issues and the ways in which it is working to promote inclusion.

Nassib is certainly not the only gay player within the NFL but his public coming out and the backing of the league, fans and his teammates could have a significant impact on not only American football but other male professional supports in the future, if bodies are prepared to seize the opportunity.

Importance of visibility

In August 2019 NFL free agent Ryan Russell came out as bisexual, saying he hoped to return to the league, but only if he could be honest with “teammates, coaches, trainers, front-office executives and fans” about his real identity. Russell said he was scared that coming out as bisexual could adversely affect his career.

Former New England Patriots offensive tackle Ryan O'Callaghan also came out after leaving the NFL, and has said the league has many gay players who stay in the closet because they fear negative ramifications for their careers.

The experiences of Russell, O’Callaghan and others suggests that players have historically feared that coming out while playing could have a negative ramification for their careers, including being dropped from teams, facing a backlash from fans, losing sponsorship deals and not being accepted by colleagues and teammates.

Nassib said he had “agonised” over coming out for 15 years, and his announcement suggests the NFL has made progress, enabling him to feel confident enough to speak out without ruining his career.

In his statement Nassib said he would typically be a private person but chose to come out because he believed that “representation and visibility are so important”. Visibility in the NFL and in top-level sport in general are critical to helping other athletes be their authentic selves while competing at the highest level. 

Retired National Basketball Association player Jason Collins, who was the second openly gay athlete to play in any of the major men’s professional sports leagues in the USA and Canada, told the Los Angeles Times: “As professional athletes, we’re used to inspiring the next generation, people who are younger than us. But he’s going to find that his actions have inspired not only people who are younger than him but older than him.”

Nassib is using his platform to build awareness of the Trevor Project, an organisation that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention resources for the LGBTQ youth, and the NFL matched his $100,000 donation to the project in the wake of his announcement.

The NFL also issued a statement to say that it was “committed to year-long efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion”.

The cultural change within the sporting world over recent decades is demonstrated by the widespread support Nassib has received from other players and fans, compared with Glenn Burke who came out to his teammates and coaches in the 1970s while playing baseball for the LA Dodgers. He suffered homophobic abuse for the rest of his short career and had left the sport by the age of 27. He later said “prejudice drove me out of baseball”.