R.K. Russell reflects on the NFL's relationship with LGBTQ+ players, 2 years after coming out as bi
When Las Vegas Raiders football player Carl Nassib came out as gay last summer, he received praise for his honesty and bravery. But despite supportive initial reactions, the first openly gay active player in NFL history is now without a team.
He’s not alone. Former NFL player R.K. Russell also found himself teamless and struggling to find a new one after coming out as bisexual. When he made the announcement in August 2019, Russell felt excited at first but also afraid of the response he would receive.
“There’s also the fear that being the first active person to come out, that I won’t sign another team. A fear that my colleagues won’t understand, that I’ll be shunned from the NFL, a league that is known to be very masculine, a manly man sport and tough,” Russell says. “And a lot of the times, culture tells us that LGBTQ+ people aren’t those things.”
Those fears were later founded when Russell’s opportunities within the NFL evaporated. In an op-ed for The Guardian earlier this year, Russell wrote that more attention should be given to how players are treated after coming out instead of only focusing on their announcement.
Instances of homophobia in stadiums, locker rooms and fandom still percolate. One example Russell points to is former Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden, whose misogynistic, racist and homophobic emails from 2010 to 2018 were detailed by The New York Times in 2021. While some within the NFL say Gruden is an outlier, Russell disagrees.
“Even if this isn’t a thread throughout the NFL or throughout male professional sports or leagues, it’s something that’s being tolerated. It’s something that’s being pacified,” Russell says. “And a lot of the times tolerance is even worse.”
Back in 2019, queer former NFL player Ryan O’Callahan said there was at least one player on every NFL team who is gay or bisexual. Russell remembers being in that position but also understands NFL players are privileged. Many LGBTQ+ youth may not be able to come out at the risk of violence, he says. A recent survey from The Trevor Project revealed that nearly half of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year. The survey also found anxiety and depression were strongly prevalent among queer youth.
For LGBTQ+ kids hoping to become NFL players, Russell says he would tell them they can be whatever they want, echoing a lesson his mother taught him at a young age.
“The person that you are is only defined by you,” he says. “There are people in this league and in this world that are just like you.”
Since leaving the NFL, Russell says his life has been better than any year he spent in the league. While there are still moments he wishes he could play, he says he’s proud of the person he is now.
“At the end of the day, I loved what I did but I didn’t love myself. I loved the guys in my locker room, I loved that camaraderie and that brotherhood, but I didn’t love me,” he says. “And that blocked any happiness that I could have got from playing football.”
Thomas Danielian produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Jeannette Muhammad adapted it for the web.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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