IIt’s no exaggeration to say that the world was watching when Carl Nassib became the first active player on an NFL roster to come out as gay. Some looked on in surprise, most with support. Still, for many of us, myself included, beyond the celebration of his barrier-breaking announcement, there was something deeper behind our watchful gaze, a question: What now?
A couple of weeks after the initial media frenzy, everything seemed normal for the Las Vegas Raiders and the sports world in general. Only Carl himself will know the extent to which his announcement tipped the scales of acceptance and intolerance one way or the other in his locker room, on the field, and with his teammates or fans. As an NFL veteran, I know that most teams will go through collective hurdles, distractions and tough times, and that off-field issues or events can affect on-field performance. However, after last Sunday’s playoff-winning performance, we can all proudly say that Carl’s coming out was not one of those things for the Raiders.
If anything, the Las Vegas Raiders’ approach seemed to get better after discovering that one of his team leaders was a proud gay man. Nassib’s coming out preceded the extreme reaction of emails from the team’s head coach, Jon Gruden. In Gruden’s emails, he used racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments and hate speech, which felt especially upsetting and ironic from the NFL head coach with an athlete off his roster. Still, the Raiders teamed up with each other and interim head coach Rich Bisaccia, whom I had the pleasure of meeting when he was the special teams coach in Dallas, and moved on.
They pushed through even when the team’s star wide receiver, Henry Ruggs, was charged with a DUI resulting in the tragic death of a young woman. Add these major tragedies and disruptions to all the other things a team deals with during a season — injuries, players violating team policies or drug policies, trades, cuts and much more — and then factor in a continuously disrupted season. Given the persistence of a global pandemic, it turns out that the least of this team’s worries were that one of their players was finally being honest about who he is.
So with an openly gay player on their roster, the Las Vegas Raiders return to the playoffs for the second time in 19 years. Contrary to what some have claimed for years, Carl Nassib proves that coming out is not a distraction to a team or the game, but that there is much to be gained when your team can accept and support its players. Now not only will LGBTQ+ athletes, fans and individuals be able to see themselves represented on Sundays when the Raiders play on their local channel, but also on a national stage at the NFL playoffs. Regardless of the Raiders’ result during wild card weekend, it’s essential to document this moment in history, one that is the first in all the years the game has been played. Whether Carl and the Raiders become Super Bowl champions now is not a moot point because, for the first time, lockdown athletes, athletes, LGBTQ+ sports fans and people alike can know it’s possible.
This weekend will see the first playoff game with an active LGBTQ+ player. Looking ahead, it’s very exciting to know that one day we’ll have a queer player with a Super Bowl ring. It is important to mark these milestones and keep moving forward, especially now that it is no longer a question of if, but when.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism