When it comes to adopting progressive attitudes, the NFL has long been one of the country’s final frontiers.
That is why it was nothing short of stunning to see the reaction this past week after Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to announce that he is gay.
Since the 28-year-old came out in a video on his Instagram page Monday, there has been a general outpouring of support from his teammates, the NFL and the public.
Player after player tweeted support of Nassib. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whose track record on many issues facing American society has often been tone deaf, released a statement in support of the player. Nassib’s No. 94 jersey was the top seller on Fanatics-owned sports apparel websites both Monday and Tuesday. The Trevor Project, a charity that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to LGBTQ youth, told People Magazine that donations have gone up 100% since Nassib announced in his coming-out video that he was donating $100,000 to them.
Contrast this to the reception that Missouri’s Michael Sam got when he came out prior to the 2014 NFL Draft. Questions still linger about whether Sam, who had been projected to go in the third round of the draft, would have fallen to the seventh round if he hadn’t been public about his sexuality.
Or contrast that to when former Net Jason Collins came out in a Sports Illustrated cover story in 2013. The first active player in a major sport to announce he was gay, Collins received support from the majority of NBA players but was labeled a sinner by ESPN announcer Chris Broussard. (Broussard later apologized.)
Or contrast that with what John Amaechi had to go through in 2007 when in his autobiography, he became the first former NBA player to come out. A number of players, most notably Tim Hardaway and a young LeBron James, were less than supportive. (Both have since changed their viewpoints with Hardaway becoming an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights.)
Michael Rosenfeld, a Stanford sociologist, has said there has been more change in attitudes toward gay rights in the past three decades in the United States than there ever has been in recorded attitudes on any issue. In 1988, the General Social Survey — a long-running national survey run by the National Opinion Research Center — found that only 11.6% of respondents thought same-sex couples should have the right to marry. By 2018, the number of respondents who thought same-sex couples should have the right to marry had risen to 68%.
"When people you know personally or people who are successful and who have high status come out of the closet, it raises the status of everyone in the formerly closeted group," Rosenfeld said in an email interview. "Gay and lesbian people started coming out of the closet in large numbers in the 1990s in the U.S., and this mass wave of people claiming their identities led to a fundamental liberalization of American attitudes toward gay people and toward gay rights. Attitudes toward gay rights are the fastest liberalizing attitudes in the history of U.S. public opinion."
Sports, especially conservative sports such as football, may have trailed the general shift in public attitudes. Yet, the way attitudes have changed in sports mirror the way attitudes have changed in general. The more LGBTQ people you know, whether it be personally or through the media, the more likely you are to be supportive toward their community.
Amaechi was a pioneer who laid the groundwork in male sports and was followed by athletes such as Collins, Sam and now Nassib.
"This young man is a force for good," Amaechi said of Nassib on Tuesday on the Dan Le Batard show with Stugotz. "What he has done today — there is a young person watching him right now who has walked to school a little lighter. Even if they have disclosed nothing about themselves, they have walked to school with a greater sense of hope because of this young man. That is a good thing."