Social media was buzzing with questions after pro football player Ryan Russell told ESPN in a wide-ranging interview published Thursday that he was “a bisexual man.” The free agent defensive end went on to describe his efforts to secure a contract for the upcoming NFL season and how important it was for him to be completely honest about who he was while meeting with teams.
“Today, I have two goals: returning to the NFL, and living my life openly,” Russell said in the interview. “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.”
Russell went on to explain that he wanted “to change” the stigma around “openly LGBTQ player[s]” in pro sports for the benefit of “generations of LGBTQ athletes who will come next.”
The situation was eerily similar to Michael Sam, who became the NFL’s first openly gay player after being drafted in 2014. Only in Sam’s case, he announced the status of his sexuality before he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams. The timing of the announcement arguably contributed to the former college defensive star falling to the 249th pick in the seventh round on the third day of the NFL Draft. Prior to coming out as gay, Sam had been projected to be a late first round pick.
Sam would go on to never play a single NFL game after a futile transactional series of being signed, cut and waived by teams. Many people have said that Sam was blacklisted because of his sexuality, noting that teams would probably consider that factor to be a distraction in an all-male locker room.
After the announcement by Russell, who was trying to return to the NFL after sitting out last season because of injury, some folks speculated he could be on the receiving end of similar treatment as Sam.
Another NFL player seemed to get the cold shoulder from the NFL, also in 2014, after rumors suggested he was gay. But safety Kerry Rhodes said at the time that he didn’t believe his sexuality had anything to do with his plight to have a team offer him a contract.
“I don’t think I was blacklisted,” Rhodes told ESPN at the time. “Especially with the NFL I don’t think they would do that … to me it was a product of me wanting to do other things and not finding the right opportunity.”
One year after being drafted, Sam said he was “not the only gay person in the NFL. I’m just saying there is a lot of us. I respect the players that did reach out to me and had the courage to tell me that they were also gay, but they do not have the same courage as I do to come out before I even played a down in the NFL.”
Because Sam was released before the season started, there has never been an openly gay player in the NFL. Likewise for Major league Baseball and the National Hockey League. Former NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay prior to his final season playing. Former University of Massachusetts basketball player Derrick Gordon came out as gay while he was in college in 2014. He ended up going undrafted by the NBA in 2016.
The NFL has been in the news recently for its controversial partnership with rapper Jay-Z, whose role in the deal was supposed to address social justice concerns that go “past kneeling.” (That comment has been criticized as downplaying a silent protest from Colin Kaepernick, another player who many feel has been blacklisted from the league.) Theoretically, Russell’s situation could (and should) compel Jay-Z to advocate on behalf of LGBTQ players who might feel marginalized while attempting to secure a contract to play in the league.