Analysis

How Carl Nassib's courageous announcement changed -- and challenged -- the NFL

With a nonchalance that belied the significance of the moment -- "I just wanted to take a quick moment to say that I'm gay" -- Carl Nassib changed the NFL. And challenged it, too.

Nassib is the first active player to come out as gay in NFL history and what he said a few sentences later, that he hopes these coming-out announcements won't even be necessary in the future, is just as important. Is the NFL ready for players to be out in the first place? Nassib’s Monday statement took an extraordinary amount of courage -- he agonized over it for 15 years, he said, not even mentioning that it is more than half as long as he has been alive. But what does it say about the culture of the NFL that it took so long for a player to feel comfortable coming out, that this still felt like an earthquake?

About 20 years ago, I had a casual conversation with a player I covered and we talked about how a gay player would be received in an NFL locker room. Players had come out after retiring from the NFL, but this was well before Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL more than seven years ago. Nobody could be under the illusion that of the approximately 2,000 players who pass through the league each year, not one was gay. The player I talked to was a respected veteran, a team leader, a good man whom any team would have been delighted to have. And he told me he would be uncomfortable with a gay teammate, would worry about how his teammate might look at him. Would the gay teammate be attracted to him?, he mused. He didn't want to worry about that while at work. I laughed at that -- Do you walk around assuming every woman is attracted to you, too?, I asked him -- but I wondered then how many generations of players it would be until the NFL could move past the most ridiculous and dehumanizing stereotypes about gay men.

But that was a long time ago -- it feels even longer than two decades. As riven as the country is right now about practically everything, it has seemed to move broadly and rapidly in acceptance of same-sex relationships. A Gallup poll released earlier this month showed that support for same-sex marriage is now at 70 percent, a high-water mark and an increase of 10 percent since the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that all states must recognize same-sex marriages. The NFL is steeped in machismo and the imagery that accompanies it, and that's probably not going away anytime soon because it appeals to a large slice of the fan base. But is the league, its players and coaches and executives, really that far out of step with the nation's acceptance of same-sex relationships?

I don't think it is. The demand for conformity in the NFL seems to slowly be ebbing. In the last few years, players have become more comfortable talking about mental health issues, for instance, a topic that was verboten not long ago. This spring, the Indianapolis Colts and the Irsay family made breaking the stigma of mental health issues the primary focus of their charitable efforts. Teams like the New York Giants have for years done their own work supporting the gay community. There are women working in senior executive roles. And particularly in the last year, as players have raised their voices for social justice, there is a rising awareness among those in the league who had once valued quietly toeing the line above all else, that this is simply not how the modern athlete is going to live.

So Nassib will finally be the first gay man to live out loud in the NFL, and the notable thing about Monday night is there was not a rush to muffle his voice. The Las Vegas Raiders' immediate reaction was a very good start. “Proud of you, Carl,” the team's social media account tweeted, and that should not be a surprise from a franchise that was ahead of its time hiring minority coaches and female executives. Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement of support and so did the NFLPA. Maybe more importantly, individual players like J.J. Watt and Saquon Barkley publicly professed their support for Nassib.

It's possible that despite this long wait, what can be said about the NFL culture is that it might now not be quite as knuckle-dragging as it once was.

Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports, has been telling me for years that the NFL was ready for this and he was feeling confident Monday night that Nassib would be embraced by fans and teammates alike. I think Zeigler is right. I'm not naïve. I know there will be outliers -- some fans and maybe even players and perhaps members of the look-at-me media -- who will loudly let Nassib know they don't like him, perhaps by asking why Nassib felt it necessary to say anything at all. But it feels like Nassib will be what so many hoped Sam would be -- the groundbreaker who, once this news cycle passes, will make us wonder what took so long.

It's Pride Month and Nassib gave so many a reason to be proud -- and, as importantly, a reason to feel hope among young members of the LGBTQ+ community who are struggling for acceptance.

The NFL may never be called progressive. But it made progress Monday.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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