Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to come out as gay on Monday, which gives him the chance to be the first player in the NFL who is also gay, and not the NFL’s First Gay Player.
That’s a big distinction according to Wade Davis, himself a former NFL player who came out after his retirement and consulted with the league for four seasons (2012-2016) after former Missouri standout Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL. While playing professional football Davis endured his version of what he called “heaven and hell,” a time in the league that, he says, felt like having schizophrenia. On one hand, he was elated to be living out a dream. On the other, he was terrified of what would happen if his teammates found out.
Then came Sam, who, Davis calls a “revolutionary in every sense of the word, who did what most people don’t have the courage to do.” Sam, essentially, gave up his dream of playing football to be the league and media’s crash test dummy, as everyone in football’s orbit pinballed through ways to have thoughtful and productive conversations about sexuality and acceptance in the locker room.
“The visibility of LGBTQ folks in society is so much more prominent now,” Davis said. “Carl’s announcement and Carl being in an NFL locker room will have a different feel because so many players and coaches know someone who is LGBTQ. It won’t be the first time they’ve engaged with someone who identifies as gay. So the conversation around it will probably be a lot less, because the proximity is now different.”
Davis enjoyed his time consulting with the NFL. He had Roger Goodell’s cell phone number and says he was never told “no” when he asked for something. He spoke at league meetings. He visited dozens of NFL teams. He remembers having a conversation with one player who was adamantly opposed to having a gay teammate. It was a breakout session with one club that was supposed to last 90 minutes and ended up going well over three hours. That player ended up becoming one of Davis’s staunchest allies and is often one of the first he calls when hosting panels before tentpole league events like the Super Bowl.
It all fits tightly into a cozy narrative, one of acceptance and coming together. But like any fictionalized story of progress, it often ignores the rawness and pain; the true casualties of a stubborn world. Monday was greeted with the appropriate level of support and enthusiasm but didn’t, as Davis said, feel “earth-shaking.” There were years worth of difficult conversations contributing to this. There were players who felt trapped and hidden throughout their careers. There were players who decided to come out post-retirement in a society that did not feel as open and accepting. There is still a long way to go, but there is also reason to look back on where we were, collectively, just a few years ago and have hope. As Davis mentioned, when Sam was coming out in the draft, some of the conversations being had in the mainstream press were barbaric.
“There still needs to be education, there still needs to be conversations,” he said. “Coaches are going to have to talk about this with a lot more fluency and sophistication. They’re going to have to be comfortable having these conversations. But I think, for Carl, if this goes the way I think it will, he’ll be able to just play football.
“If he chooses to do more advocacy work in the LGBTQ space, more power to him. If he doesn’t, there are other individuals who will continue to do the work.”
Since Sam was drafted, the league has felt the reverberations of different societal reckonings. As a Black man, Davis said it was impossible not to feel as if he were at the intersection of it all. The league, like America, coming to terms with its first gay player. The league, like America, starting to awaken to conversations about racial injustice. After each cringeworthy moment where the establishment recoiled or failed to open its eyes to those who felt oppressed, ignored or misunderstood, there was an inevitable softening thanks to societal pressure or pressure from within locker rooms.
Nassib’s announcement came on the heels of this. At the end of his statement, which he posted on Instagram Monday followed by a notice that he donated $100,000 to The Trevor Project, an organization that aids in “crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25,” Nassib said that people shouldn’t be offended if he doesn’t answer questions or respond to interview requests.
Davis, too, said he wouldn’t be surprised if his teammates felt the same way. And for a moment, we can exist in that small pivot toward normalcy, appreciating the fact that it doesn’t really need to be addressed at all.
One day in the not-so-distant future, it won’t even require an announcement on social media.
“Society is changing at such a rapid rate,” he said. “At some point, this was just inevitable.”
More From Conor Orr: