CARL NASSIB: GAY IN THE NFL: There is a history; the Raiders’ player is not the first
Why is it important that Carl Nassib came out as gay, publicly on social media, the first-ever active player in the National Football League to do so?
American football is the most violent of team sports, and thus the most macho. Its structures and ethos are militaristic, everything from terminology (blitzes, bombs, battles and trenches) to tactical game-planning, but most of all its adherence to the military basic-training approach to build team cohesion and individual toughness. Gayness does not factor in.
Seven years ago, an openly gay college star, Michael Sam, who played the same position as Nassib, was chosen in the final round of the NFL’s college draft. Sam was always a long-shot to make the league, based on a lack of size and explosive ability; in fact at the time I predicted correctly that undrafted Ethan Westbrooks had a better chance of making the active roster. But Sam was the victim in media of a double-edged sword: the mainstream media boosted his ability, treating his college star status as being a sure-thing in the pros, while the NFL and their media’s discussion concentrated not at all on his ability but on whether his drafting were a gesture and whether his presence would be a “distraction”, whether his teammates would trust him on the field or in the showers. He spent a year on practice squads, then played in Canada, where he says his teammates actually did refuse to join him in the showers.
When I played football, through high school and college, most of my coaches had either been in the service, or behaved as if they had. Coaches routinely shamed players not tough enough for their liking with homophobic or feminine slurs — “faggot” and “pussy” being the most common. I doubt this practice has ceased completely even today. Yet in those same years I was playing, a journeyman NFL running back named Dave Kopay was hacking out a nine-year pro career based on his toughness, not his overwhelming talent. His pro career ended a year after my college years, in 1972. Three years later he came out as gay to a Washington newspaper; two years after that, he wrote a book that became a national best-seller. But still left some stories untold.
The fiercest of all football coaches might have been Vince Lombardi, whose success with the Green Bay Packers led to his name being given to the Super Bowl winner’s trophy. Lombardi had played at Fordham University on a line…