One of the most significant cultural milestones in recent North American sports history has occurred with as much pomp and circumstance as a shrug.
No openly gay player had ever played in a regular season game in the 102-year history of the NFL until September 13, when Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib entered the field. as he had done in every game of his six years. professional career.
Amid the pageantry of a Monday night football game, Nassib’s barrier-breaking moment overtook the Raiders’ opening ceremony of their new $ 2 billion jet-black stadium to fans. . The greatest recognition of Nassib’s achievement came from some of the participants wearing his # 94 jersey, not some other orchestrated gesture.
On Sunday, he will do it again as the Raiders play against the Steelers, with Nassib and the team making a concerted effort to take what he accomplished in stride and leave it to others to discern and dissect whether a significant cultural change has occurred in the league.
Experts on diversity and inclusion in sport have said that is how it should be.
“I think the fact that it wasn’t a distraction is a very positive sign,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. “It’s a sign of how much this has been accepted and that there hasn’t been a lot of noise.”
On June 21, Nassib came out as gay in a video posted to his Instagram account, claiming he had internalized his sexuality as a secret for 15 years. The one-minute video, filmed outside his home in West Chester, Pa., Sparked a wave of congratulatory messages on social media, including from his NFL peers, celebrities and the President Biden. Nassib’s jersey became the NFL’s top seller in 24 hours, according to Fanatics, the league’s e-commerce partner.
Before Nassib, 15 players in league history identified as gay or bisexual, according to Outsports, a news site that covers LGBTQ athletes and sports issues. But unlike Nassib, they either announced their sexuality after their playing days were over or had never appeared in a regular season game.
Before the start of the season, Nassib announced that he would donate $ 100,000 to the Trevor Project, a crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth. He contacted his organization about two months before his Instagram post to discuss a plan, said Amit Paley, executive director of the Trevor Project. In their conversations, Paley said Nassib wanted to raise awareness of LGBTQ issues rather than just focusing on himself.
Forty percent of the more than 60,000 LGBTQ youth polled in a Trevor Project 2020 survey said they had considered suicide, and 68 percent of those polled in another survey conducted by the organization released this month said they did not participate in sports for their school or community club. for fear of discrimination.
As Nassib’s message spread, traffic to Project Trevor’s website increased by over 350%, and the organization received at least $ 225,000 in pledged donations by the end of this week. .
“I think Carl really didn’t want it to be a big deal, and I hope someday it’s not a big deal when someone goes out,” Paley said in an interview. “But it was clearly a big deal to go out and be the first in this way.”
Things calmed down when training camp started a month later. Nassib’s jersey is no longer at the top of the league’s sales, but it remains in the top five of the Raiders’ players, according to Fanatics.
He declined several interview requests and only spoke publicly once before the first game. Against the Baltimore Ravens, Nassib played 44% of defensive snaps in a rotating role, making three tackles. But in overtime, he collided with Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson for a sack and forced a fumble that the Raiders defense recovered. The offense scored a touchdown to win the game, 33-27, two games later.
Nassib, now in his third team since the Cleveland Browns drafted him in 2016, led the nation with 15.5 sacks at Penn State as a senior and won the Lombardi Award for the country’s best lineman. He tries to remember things from every game, he said, but mostly he relished Monday night’s win.
“It was really special,” Nassib said at a post-match press conference. “I’m really happy that we got the victory on the day that made history a little bit.”
His teammates did not mention Nassib’s historic role in the victory. Coach Jon Gruden only complimented his performance on the pitch. Defensive end Maxx Crosby did it too, saying simply, “Carl is a ball player and I’m proud of the guy.”
ESPN, the network that broadcast the game, also subtly dealt with Nassib’s feat. He released a 28-second video in the third quarter with clips from his Instagram video and a few photos. On an alternate show on ESPN2 featuring retired NFL quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, former NBA player Charles Barkley appeared as a guest and wore Nassib’s jersey.
The cover’s nonchalant demeanor in some ways mimicked the reception of other male professional athletes who played their first games after coming out. Former NBA player Jason Collins received modest applause from the opposing crowd when he entered a game for the Nets in 2014, 10 months after announcing he was gay. But there was no other form of recognition inside the arena, and Collins and his teammates downplayed the media’s importance of the moment.
Robbie Rogers, the first MLS player to appear in a game when he was openly gay, said things looked “normal” in an atmosphere typical of a 2013 Los Angeles Galaxy game.
Nassib said in August that his teammates had supported him since his exit. The Raiders haven’t left any players available for comment, but quarterback Derek Carr, who said his record was just a few points behind Nassib’s, said during training camp that he had seen nothing to dispute it.
“When he walked in I just like to watch, and not a single person from my perspective treated him differently,” Carr said.
Amy Trask, the former Raiders general manager, said this fits in with the tradition of a team that has historically embraced diversity. In 1997, she became the first female NFL general manager Tom Flores, who is of Mexican descent, was the first Latino NFL coach to win a Super Bowl, winning two with the Raiders, over the seasons. 1980 and 1983. The team also drafted Eldridge Dickey, the first black quarterback taken in the first round, in 1968, when the Raiders played in the AFL.
Trask said she didn’t focus on the story she made on her first day or how her coworkers would change the way they act towards her. She’s not surprised at how Nassib and the Raiders fared last week.
“This is an organization that has a history of hiring regardless of race, gender or any other individuality that has no bearing on whether one can do a job,” said Trask said in an interview. “It’s very, very special, from my perspective, that Carl is a Raider.
“He came out and did his job, like everyone would want a player to do their job,” she added.
If he continues to do the job well, said Wayne Mabry, arguably the Raiders’ most recognizable fan, Nassib’s sexuality wouldn’t change the way he views the player. For nearly 30 years, Mabry, nicknamed “The Violator,” attended nearly every Raiders home game dressed as a pirate with black and silver face paint, leather boots and spiked epaulettes.
He said it was a tribute inspired in part by the team’s familiar reputation as the league’s “Bad Boys”. It is irrelevant, he said, that a gay player is part of a team with such a historically gritty perception.
“Warriors come in all shapes and sizes,” said Mabry, 64. “It’s about what you bring to the table. As long as he can help us win, he’s a warrior for me.