I cry a lot easier at 34 than I did when I was younger — especially since the pandemic has made life more emotional for everyone over the last 18 months.
I was a puddle Monday afternoon shortly after a friend texted me to ask if I had heard of Carl Nassib. I had not. Now I'll never forget him.
In a video he posted to his Instagram, Nassib, a Raiders defensive lineman, announced he was gay, and so long as he takes a snap next season, he will become the first openly gay, active player in the NFL to play in a regular season game.
"I just wanted to take a quick moment to say that I'm gay," Nassib said in his video. "I've been meaning to do this for a while now but finally feel comfortable getting it off my chest. I really have the best life, the best family, friends and job a guy can ask for."
As someone who is openly gay and follows sports for a living, I confess I wasn't sure if this day would ever come again in the top four men's sports leagues after Jason Collins came out in 2014 and played in the NBA.
I thought the experience of Michael Sam had done permanent damage to the idea of pro, cisgender male athletes coming out and thriving in their sports.
Sam, you may recall, came out before the NFL draft in 2014. Almost immediately, he started sliding down draft boards as anonymous executives didn't want to take a chance on him. Respected voices in the game like Tony Dungy said he wouldn't draft Sam because the media attention around him would bring a "distraction" to his team, and the NFL certainly hates the dreaded "distractions." Sam became one of the final picks of the draft by the St. Louis Rams, but he got cut before the season and never played a down in the regular season game.
The message of Sam's bravery was clear: the NFL wasn't ready for an openly gay player. That was confirmed in 2016, when then-Falcons assistant Marquand Manuel asked cornerback Eli Apple at the NFL scouting combine, "Do you like men?"
If there was a player in any major sport contemplating coming out, all they had to do was look at Sam's experience and see that they could be risking their careers — and potentially millions of dollars — by coming out. The choice just isn't worth it. Stay in the closet, continue your career, even at the risk of your mental health and quality of life.
This is why Nassib's announcement was so important. Entering his sixth NFL season, he can become an important example for young LGBTQ+ people everywhere that you can be open about your sexuality or gender identity and thrive in sports. Sports can be a hostile place where young people can hear a lot of homophobic and transphobic language, especially coming up through middle school and high school.
I never thought I'd be able to come out and play sports when I was growing up, and I didn't come out until I was 22. I also never thought I'd be able to be an openly gay sportswriter because of an environment that traditionally hasn't welcomed LGBTQ+ people.
Nassib can help change that. I personally hadn't heard of Nassib, but plenty have. He's a regular on the Raiders defense. A part-time starter, the 28-year-old Nassib has 20.5 sacks in his five years and signed a contract before last season worth a reported $25 million. The Penn State alum was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2015. So expect him to be on the field Week 1 and make history.
"I'm a pretty private person so I hope you guys know that I'm not doing this for attention," Nassib said. "I just think that representation and visibility are so important. I actually hope that one day, videos like this and the whole coming out process are not necessary, but until then I will do my best and my part to cultivate a culture that's accepting and compassionate."
This is spot on. If I had someone like Nassib to look up to when I was younger, perhaps I wouldn't have spent so many sleepless nights wondering if I'd ever be able to come out. He can let people know it's OK. Even though society as a whole is more accepting of LGBTQ+ people than it was just a few years ago, every person's situation is different as it pertains to how welcoming their family or friends will be to them. Mental illness and suicide rates are higher for LGBTQ+ youth because of this. Nassib lets them know they're not alone.
For those that say his coming out shouldn't be a big deal, it certainly is, because of the immeasurable impact on young people contemplating the same. It also helps diminish stigmas and stereotypes around LGBTQ+ people.
I hope the NFL is truly ready to accept Nassib. No league in sports is slower to accept change, yet another reason why Nassib's decision is extraordinary.
It seems as if the Raiders have done a good job as an organization letting him know they will have his back. The NFL too sent out supportive tweets and a statement from Commissioner Roger Goodell. Some NFL players and teams also shared their support on social media.
It's a good start, but I still have my doubts after what happened to Sam. I hope the league's acts will back up its words as the excitement over Nassib's announcement fades with time. I hope Nassib doesn't get anonymously dragged down in the media the way Sam did, and I hope the Raiders stand by him.
They play the first Monday night game of the season, and I hope to see ESPN's broadcast highlighting the fact Nassib will be making history when he trots onto the field.
I'll be keeping the Kleenex nearby.