by Matthew Graves
The last two days has seen a whirlwind of change swiftly swarm over the world of sports. Carl Nassib’s announcement as the first active National Football League player to come out as an openly gay man has been received to a bevy of support from athletes to actors to politicians to the everyday fan of (American) football.
As a gay man who once played football, a lifelong devout Cleveland sports fan, and now as a staff member at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, I felt compelled to briefly respond to this moment. I will preface this by saying that my football career obviously did not take me to such heights as Nassib—I mean I will be honest here and say I was a first string bench warmer—but I nonetheless experienced firsthand the culture that surrounds this particular sport’s locker room.
For starters, sports at every level have long been pervaded by a hyper-masculine and narrow attitude. This has made it extremely difficult for LGBTQ+ athletes to find the space for them to lead their authentic lives. It is perhaps in this notion that has given way to the general trope of “gays not liking sports.”
Over the years, we have seen the list of athletes grow who have come out either at the tail-end of their career or well after their days of playing have come to an end. This has proved that you definitely can play sports if you are queer, but, to some, it may have suggested that it’s best to wait until you are done playing to speak your truth.
American football player Michael Sam took a giant leap in 2014 to be the first openly gay man to be drafted by an NFL team. While Sam may have never played a down in the league—he did play in the Canadian Football League for a season—the milestone and its impact should not be overlooked. It seemingly has taken several years for this seismic decision to permeate through what is perhaps the most egregious sport when it comes to acceptance and tolerance.
Growing up and now in hindsight, football was undoubtedly a toxic environment. It actively suppressed my emotional and mental development and evaluation of self. That being not quite as tough or strong as some of my teammates was to be less than and even suggestive that it be due to my sexuality. That it was acceptable to use the word gay and other slurs as a way to describe weakness on or off the field. To shed light on this culture would have largely gone ignored before Michael Sam. Sam took on the brunt of bigotry in a sport that had long allowed these noxious tendencies.
For four years, some of the most formative years in a young adult’s life, I was taunted and teased. At one point even having “GRAVES IS GAY” carved into the front of the football locker room stall doors. I internalized and dealt with it, showing up every day to each practice, each conditioning session, each meeting as a defiant stance against all the coaches and peers who may have at times thought what is he still doing here.
So why go through this? Because I love the game and I love sports. Here endeth the “gays not liking sports” trope. The camaraderie of teammates, many of whom I still talk to, is a real bond developed over the long hours together in the summer heat at two-a-days. The thrill of stepping out on the field under the lights every Friday was the same thrill I have had stepping out on to a stage to perform. I wasn’t seeking to be part of a larger problem, I was just trying to live out what I enjoyed.
And yet I endured all this with never actually coming out to anyone. That wouldn’t happen until years later in college when I was far enough removed from that locker room culture. And for a gay youth who had no relatives or friends within the LGBTQ+ community, coming out thinking there would be no one to help me was part of my own cathartic journey. To be out then may have come with even more obscene attacks and I was not ready to handle them, especially even on my own.
My only regret now looking back is not playing out and maybe serve as a small piece of the puzzle to help end the stigma of being gay in sports. But at that time, the LGBTQ+ community was still on the cusp of realizing an over-40-year fight to earn certain inalienable rights in the eyes of societal law.
I often wonder now what would have playing out looked like then. Would I have even played all four years? Would my good friends at that time still have accepted me? These kind of coming out-hindsight-introspections all come back now with Carl Nassib’s announcement. And immediately I think…What if Michael Sam and Carl Nassib played while I was in high school?
And so from that perspective, I feel that is what needs to be celebrated most. That Carl’s bravery to be an openly gay, active player on the Las Vegas Raiders roster – one of the most aggressive fan bases out there – can influence generations to stand up to the toxic masculinity in locker rooms across the country. I know now that there is much work to be done in correcting this mentality that the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t have a place in sports. Nassib’s donation to The Trevor Project acknowledges that there are real mental health ramifications of the actions many take to make Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender athletes feel less than regardless of their athletic ability.
What we cannot do in this moment is lose sight of the bigger picture. Do not let outside noise surrounding this announcement drown the greater good that can come from this. Let us use this announcement to spring forth with stronger resolve the drive to end inequality and mistreatment on basis of sexuality and gender in sports at every level.
Right now, state sanctioned bills across the country are actively being discussed and or passed barring transgender athletes from participating in sport. Ohio’s “Save Women’s Sports Act” would prevent trans female students from competing on female teams in Ohio’s schools and colleges. Bringing awareness and educating our community on how harmful bills like this are is part of the impassioned work my coworkers and I tackle every day here at The Center.
“If we are going to talk about saving women and girls, let’s save all women and girls, trans females included,” writes Eliana Turan, Director of Development here at The LGBT Center.
I urge you to read Ellie’s op-ed from this past May. It details a very public form of bigotry by way of the legislation circulating in courts around the United States.
I challenge Carl and the NFL to realize the full potential of their platform. That they use the resources afforded to them to educate some of their surrounding affiliates on these issues. That they continue to promote social equity at every turn.
Finally, I plea that in this milestone, we do not lose sight of that bigger picture. That we recognize there is still greater progress to be made to achieve total equality in sports. That this announcement is just a piece in a much larger puzzle.
The journey does not end with one incredibly brave statement. As we say around here, it’s not just about the moment, but more the movement. Let this moment be part of the collective movement in the fight towards equality in each facet of life. Take care all and Happy Pride!
Matthew Graves is the Development Associate at The LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. He participates in the Cleveland chapter of national Stonewall Sports organization and as a lifelong Cleveland fan, Matt is beyond excited for the upcoming Browns season!