Every U.S. National Football League has at least one closeted gay or bisexual player, according to former NFL tackle Ryan O’Callaghan.
O’Callaghan, who played right offensive tackle for the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs from 2006 to 2011, says that there are gay and bisexual players currently playing in the league, but most fear backlash for coming out, such as the loss of sponsorships or even their place on the 53-man roster.
O’Callaghan, who came out in 2017, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that he regularly hears from those players.
“I can promise you there’s plenty of closeted NFL players,” O’Callaghan said. “I think it’s safe to say there’s at least one on every team who is either gay or bisexual. A lot of guys still see it as potentially having a negative impact on their career.”
O’Callaghan says he knows how much of a burden hiding one’s sexual orientation can be: he did it for the five years he was in the NFL, and struggled with suicidal thoughts and an addiction to pain killers during that time.
It was the Chiefs’ psychologist who eventually helped him resolve those issues — and to eventually build up the courage to come out to his family.
O’Callaghan shares his personal story in his upcoming book, My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life, which is scheduled for release on Sept. 3.
O’Callaghan said the NFL has done “little things” in recent years to show support for the LGBTQ community, including sponsoring New York City’s Pride Parade, but has not provided players with sufficient resources to support them should they come out.
In 2017, the league launched NFL Pride, an affinity group meant to support LGBTQ employees and create a more inclusive environment, but it has not led to a wave of players coming out.
As it stands, fewer than 10 former NFL players have come out — and all of them did so after they stopped playing.
While soccer player Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay athlete actively playing in a major U.S. sports league in 2013, and NBA player Jason Collins came out later that year and managed to play in some regular season games, the NFL has yet to have an openly gay player make a 53-man roster and see a substantial amount of playing time during the regular season.
Even Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL in 2014, only managed to play for the then-St. Louis Rams during the preseason before becoming a casualty of roster cuts when the team reduced its ranks from 90 players down to 53.
Sam cleared waivers, but was never signed to the Rams’ 10-man practice squad. He was added to the practice squad of the Dallas Cowboys in September, but released a month later.
“It’s going to take a high-profile player who’s playing currently, coming out, to really make a difference,” O’Callaghan said.
While most of his personal fears about coming out had to do with how his family would receive the news, O’Callaghan believes contract guarantees might alleviate some closeted gay athletes’ fears of losing their jobs or sponsorship deals if they were to come out.
“I just don’t think people understand the reality,” he said, noting that there are no federal laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. “We can still get fired for being gay or denied services for being trans.”