When Ryan O’Callaghan decided to come out as openly gay, for him it was supposed to be the end of the world. He thought that he would lose everything. His family, his friends, his career, it would all be over with so his plan in 2011 was to kill himself after the conclusion of his NFL career.
Studies have shown that many people in the LGBT+ community, especially young people, have those same thoughts. We don’t know all of what Carl Nassib has gone through mentally in his journey, but wanting to help people like O’Callaghan was why he decided to push past his fear and become the first active NFL player to be publicly gay. And even though he had long come out to his family and close friends, putting out that Instagram video was far from easy for him.
“I stared at the phone for an hour trying to hype myself up,” Nassib said to Michael Strahan on Good Morning America. “The last thing I said was like ‘You know what? For the kids,’ and I pressed post.”
Cyd Zeigler is a writer at Outsports and wrote O’Callaghan’s autobiography with him, titled My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving my Life. He knows that because of the success and cultural importance of the NFL in this country, an openly gay player in that league can help a lot of young people.
“It’s deeply impactful, because of one the visibility of the NFL, and two the NFL is the most powerful cultural institution in America,” Zeigler told Deadspin. “There’s no movie studio, there’s no T.V. network that drives culture the way that football and the NFL do. For a gay man to come out and for kids to be able to see he kept playing. His teammates said they still loved him.
“He’ll get another job. It continues to give kids the confidence that I have as a gay adult man who has seen the acceptance for so many years, gives them the confidence to be themselves and experience that acceptance too.”
Zeigler came out in 1996. Before that, he thought there was a possibility that he might gay, but he wasn’t completely sure. However, he was teased about being gay for much of his life as a child even though he didn’t have those thoughts until somewhere around his teenage years. He noted that those jokes did stop once he started “running circles around [his classmates]” when he was in high school. Talking to Zeigler it is clear that he doesn’t lack confidence, so when he met the first man that he was ever attracted to it took him about four months to come out to everyone that he knew.
How he tries to encourage young people who are gay is by letting them know that there is a good chance that they will have more support than they realize. Outsports partnered with the University of Winchester and the Sports Equality Foundation. A ton of data was gathered through a survey of athletes who had come out as gay in high school and college. Overall only five percent of those surveyed responded that they had a negative experience while nearly 82 percent had a positive one.
When narrowed down to what they considered the “Big Five” sports — football, men’s basketball, baseball, soccer, and ice hockey,” the numbers definitely changed, as they also did when narrowed to high school instead of college — but not drastically. In the “Big Five” 71.7 percent had a positive experience compared to 7.6 percent bad or worse. Overall, the high school data showed that 71.3 percent of the athletes had a good experience and 7.4 percent had a bad experience. Only three of the 1,000 athletes surveyed described their experience as a “worst-possible scenario.”
Certainly, a person seeing this should hope that no one experienced the worst-possible scenario, and the percentage of athletes who had a bad experience is still a little high, especially when the study is broken into sections. But the data is showing that a strong majority of athletes who come out to their teammates don’t have bad or hateful experiences. Many do get the positive reaction that Nassib received, and the one that O’Callaghan had when he came out to then-Kansas City Chiefs GM Scott Pioli in 2011.
“Scott’s reaction was like, ‘you told me that you had a problem to discuss,’” Zeigler said. “‘I thought there was actually a problem. You being gay is not a problem.’”
That went a long way towards helping O’Callaghan live an open life and enjoy it. Surely some young football player, baseball player, or track and field athlete saw Nassib strip-sack Lamar Jackson on Monday Night Football and it made that person feel a little bit better.
There is still a long way for society to get to where Nassib talked about with Strahan. The day when these announcements won’t be necessary. Until that day, this isn’t the time to slow down, it’s the time for society to push harder for good so if that study is done again in 10 years the numbers look even better.
A great step in that direction would be the 2021 Las Vegas Raiders’ fifth-best defender — per Pro Football Focus — being on a roster come Week 1.