THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Why is it important that Las Vegas Raiders' defensive Carl Nassib has come 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.
Only 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 Rams' active roster. But Sam was the victim in media of a double-edged sword: the mainstream 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 merely a gesture and whether his presence would be a "distraction", would his teammates 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.
It reminded me of a scene from The West Wing, where Admiral Fitzwallis (played by John Amos), who is black, walks into a meeting where Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) is arguing with some military officers about "don't ask, don't tell" policies towards gays in the military. "They're telling you it will hurt unit cohesion, right Sam?" Sam agrees. "And it will. But they said the same thing about blacks 50 years years ago. You know what? The army got over it. And I'm chairman of the joint chiefs. Beat that with a stick".
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 called "the seven blocks of granite" and he was a block of granite. He was demanding and ruthless when players fell short of the effort he required. His philosophy was built on out-executing the opposition, of out-toughing them, of refusing to execute at less than their best even as exhaustion took hold ("fatigue makes cowards of us all" was one of his sayings. But he was fair. As Packer great Henry Jordan once said, "he treats us all the same…like dogs." And when black players had problems finding good housing in small-town Wisconsin, Lombardi went straight to the town's chamber of commerce and city council, to sort them out and get realtors to treat his players as equals.
In 1969 Lombardi came back from retirement to coach the Washington Redskins (as they were called then) and signed Kopay. One of Kopay's competitors for a roster spot was Ray McDonald, Washington's first choice in the 1967 college draft. A running back from Idaho who had torn up the Big Sky conference, McDonald was an immensely gifted athlete. At 6–4 248 pounds he'd run a 9.9 100 yard dash, ran the hurdles and threw the shot and discus for the Vandals' track team. He was everything Kopay wasn't except in one way, because McDonald too was gay.
McDonald had also been outed, by the DC police, who arrested him in 1968, having sex with another man in a public place, a "public indecency" charge. But in training camp in 1969, Lombardi told his coaches not to, in his words, "challenge Ray's manhood". A "don't ask don't tell" attitude was relatively progressive in those days, though McDonald recalled being taunted by Sonny Jurgensen (something Jurgensen denies). Lombardi was interested only in ability, but it went deeper than that. It turned out Vince Lombardi had a brother, Harold, who was gay, and Lombardi understood, as with race, that people were people, and deserved to be treated as such. Albeit sometimes like dogs.
McDonald also suffered from a second, literal, Achilles heel: a chronic Achilles injury which meant he actually walked with a limp. It had curtailed his rookie season, which otherwise had been promising, and along with his bust, pretty much wiped out his second year. So when he showed up late for a team meeting in preseason, and this was Lombardi late, meaning not early, Lombardi cut him. Because of his injury, this might have been inevitable, but it provided an excuse. Ironically it probably also guaranteed Dave Kopay his job.
There was another gay player on those Redskins; a talented tight end named Jerry Smith. Although Smith was deeply closeted, Kopay thinks Lombardi probably knew he was gay (though Kopay also believes Lombardi never suspected about him). Smith and Kopay began a secret relationship; that year Smith had his best season in the NFL; chosen first-team all-pro. The relationship didn't survive as Kopay moved on to other teams. Smith never matched that season, but he played for the Redskins for another eight seasons. In 1986 Smith died of Aids. Football players were the ideals of American masculinity. Jerry Smith never felt able to acknowledge, not even on his death bed, that he was gay.
At last count, almost 30 former NFL players have come out at some point after the careers. But Carl Nassib's gesture is important because it may help ensure that another Jerry Smith is not forced to deny who he is; not to the public, not to his teammates, not to himself. And as a public figure in America's most popular sport, this message will filter down to youngsters struggling with the gap between the sport and its macho posturing. The NFL issued a statement supporting him; ironically, commissioner Roger Goodell, like Lombardi, has a gay brother, whom he protected from abuse when they were kids. But the overall lack of shock around the league and in the media is a good sign for some small sort of progress. And, being America, within three days Nassib's jersey was the best-selling piece of NFL merchandise. Which may be pointing to the day when a player's sexuality doesn't need to be the lead item on the news.