How Ryan Russell and Michael Sam Paved a Way for Out Football Players

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Ryan Russell and Michael Sam may not have played a single down of regular-season NFL football as out athletes, but they certainly kicked open the door and made it possible for Las Vegas Raider Carl Nassib to earn that distinction.

Sam came out as gay as he entered the 2014 NFL draft after an All-American and first-team All-Southeastern Conference career at the University of Missouri. He was drafted by the St. Louis Rams but was released in the final round of roster cuts in the preseason. He later played a year in the Canadian Football League. Russell came out as bisexual in 2019 while unsigned after stints with the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

By coming out publicly when they did, both men elevated the conversation from one of tired tropes about locker room dynamics to one of eventual acceptance. After all, both men had been in locker rooms and showers with (presumably) cis-straight athletes for years without issue. It might not have seemed so at the time, but Sam and Russell effectively deflated and disproved the arguments against LGBTQ+ athletes on the field and in the locker room with their announcements.

In many ways, it is fitting that all three men play defensive end, perhaps the single most violent position in the game. The position requires a mix of brute strength with speed and agility, used to plow through or slip around opponents to open a path to the ball carrier. Sam and Russell blasted open that path for Nassib to follow, brushing aside many of the backward yet familiar homophobic stereotypes and fears.

Regardless of where Nassib’s path takes him next, as the first out active player in a regular-season NFL game, it was made possible because of Sam and Russell.

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