The National Football League got its first openly LGBTQ player last week after free-agent defensive end Ryan Russell, who previously played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2016-2017, came out as bisexual.
Russell, whose NFL career included time spent on the Dallas Cowboys (prior to roster cutdowns for the 2016 season) and the practice squad of the Buffalo Bills in 2018, came out in a personal essay published by ESPN.
In doing so, the 27-year-old becomes the only currently active LGBTQ male athlete in one of the four major professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL).
“It’s so much better than hiding and holding it in and just kind of repressing myself,” Russell told The New York Times in an interview. “I think the NFL is definitely ready to accept an openly LGBTQ player.”
Unlike women’s sports, where a number of professional athletes are openly gay, the number of male athletes who have come out as gay is extremely small — and most have done it after retiring.
Jason Collins, a former NBA journeyman who came out as gay in 2013, has since retired from professional basketball.
Michael Sam, a former college standout who played defensive end for the University of Missouri, became the first openly gay man to be drafted in the NFL in 2014, but was eventually cut from the then-St. Louis Rams as part of routine roster cutdowns prior to the start of the season. He landed on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad, only to be cut later that season.
Russell, who remains a free agent, wrote in his essay that he had recently met with an NFL team that was interested in signing him for the upcoming season. Unfortunately, he has not yet been signed with any team.
Recently, all 32 NFL teams went through the process of roster cutdowns, where squads are pared down from 90 to 53 players. As a result, there are a number of free agents (those who go through the waiver process unclaimed and do not land on a team’s practice squad) on the open market that teams can potentially sign to address weaknesses on either side of the ball.
Those free agents are now Russell’s competition for a limited number of roster spots that may open up later in the NFL season if current players become injured, fail to meet a team’s expectations, or become bogged down by off-the-field issues, such as addiction or legal troubles.
Making Russell’s chances more difficult is the fact that he missed all of the 2018 season because of a shoulder injury he sustained while playing for Tampa Bay in 2017, which could raise questions about his health and readiness to perform among teams who might be inclined to sign him.
Nonetheless, Russell is hopeful that he will eventually return as a member of another NFL team’s 53-man roster.
“I have two goals: returning to the NFL, and living my life openly,” he wrote in his essay. “I want to live my dream of playing the game I’ve worked my whole life to play, and being open about the person I’ve always been.
“Those two objectives shouldn’t be in conflict. But judging from the fact that there isn’t a single openly LGBTQ player in the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball or the NHL, brings me pause. I want to change that — for me, for other athletes who share these common goals, and for the generations of LGBTQ athletes who will come next.”
Russell told the Times that one of the people he had reached out to was former NFL offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan, who previously played for the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs almost a decade ago and came out as gay two years ago. O’Callaghan recently made headlines when he said that there was “at least one” gay or bisexual player on every NFL team.
In his essay for ESPN, Russell noted that there is often pressure to stay closeted due to the fear that being known as LGBTQ would hurt their chances of remaining in the league and earning playing time if they manage to remain on a roster. He told the story of a “well-known blogger” who messaged him and had figured out that Russell and the man he was dating were in a relationship.
“My professional world and personal world were colliding with me caught in the cataclysm. I panicked, then wrote back, reminding him that there were implications about his actions he didn’t fully understand. If the blogger outed me, I was sure that would kill my career, one that was supporting not just me, but my mother and grandfather,” Russell wrote. “He’d eradicate a childhood dream that was the product of years of work and sacrifice. “After hearing me out, know what that blogger told me? That he would grant me this favor, but that I should be more careful.
“Let that sink into your brain: Even though openly LGBTQ people are thriving in every area of public life — politics, entertainment, the top corporations in America — they are so invisible in pro sports that a gossip blogger is doing a favor for a bisexual football player by not disclosing that he happens to date men. Nobody should need a favor to live honestly. In nobody’s worlds should being careful mean not being yourself. The career you choose shouldn’t dictate the parts of yourself that you embrace.”
He also says he doesn’t believe it should be that difficult for the NFL to deal with the prospect of openly gay players, noting, “NFL teams who worry about the ‘distractions’ that would come with additional media coverage have skilled PR professionals who understand that there are bigger issues on Sunday afternoon than a quarterback being asked, ‘What’s it like having a bisexual teammate?'”
As he waits and hopes to be picked up by an NFL team, Russell has received a significant amount of support from fellow LGBTQ athletes and national LGBTQ groups. Tennis legend Billie Jean King took to Twitter to praise him, as did Olympic diver Greg Louganis.
Congratulations to Ryan Russell for sharing his truth and living an authentic life! His desire to make this process easier for LGBTQ professional athletes in the future is inspiring. 🌈 #EqualityForAll https://t.co/PR9zFOJS89
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) August 29, 2019
What an amazing letter. And what an amazing person #RyanRussell is. But you only have to read the comments on this thread to know how far we still have to go. We'll get there, but far to go. #EqualityForAll #NFL #LGBTQ https://t.co/nRFsk84X9H
— Gregory Louganis (@greglouganis) August 29, 2019
“Ryan Russell is creating more space and opportunity for LGBTQ young people to dream big and to pursue their goals,” added Sarah McBride, the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign.
“Ryan Russell’s decision to come out will undoubtedly have a big impact on LGBTQ acceptance in professional sports,” Zeke Stokes, chief programs officer for the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, said in a statement. “Everyone should be able to bring their full, authentic selves to work, and that includes the NFL.”