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‘I Was an Outcast’

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A day is coming when this will not make headlines.

Dave Kopay, now 78, was the first major team athlete in North America to publicly come out as gay. He did it in 1975, shortly after retiring from the N.F.L., through a newspaper article. Then he bore the brunt for years.

“Blackballed from football,” he told me this week. “College and pro. I was an outcast.”

Michael Sam, a star lineman at Missouri, came out as gay through interviews with ESPN and The New York Times. It was 2014. He received more support than Kopay did decades earlier, but also a similar backlash. Despite being one of the best defensive players in college football, he never played in an N.F.L. game.

Jake Bain came out while still in high school in 2017. Since he was a star running back, news stories focused on his sexuality, and with them came a mix of care and venom. Bain struggled with depression and quit the game after a year as one of the few openly gay players in college football.

On Monday, Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib became the first active N.F.L. player to come out. He did it on Instagram, another athlete telling his story in his own way. And he did so with a joy and ease that made me realize just how much the world is changing.

“I just want to take a quick moment to say that I am gay,” he said, looking directly into his cellphone’s camera from his home in West Chester, Pa.

He would continue for less than a minute, saying he is happy and has supportive family and friends, and pledging $100,000 to the Trevor Project, which offers suicide prevention for L.G.B.T.Q. youth. However brief, it felt like we were watching a man become unburdened, an athlete knowing he was sending his truth to an audience more willing to embrace his message than ever before.

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Carl Nassib Becomes First Openly Gay Active N.F.L. Player

The Raiders defensive lineman came out in a video posted on social media and said he would donate $100,000 to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention efforts for L.G.B.T.Q. youth.

What’s up, people. I’m Carl Nassib. I’m at my house here in West Chester, Pa. I just want to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, but I finally feel comfortable enough to get it off my chest. I really have the best life. I’ve got the best family, friends and job a guy could ask for. I’m a pretty private person, so I hope you guys know that I’m really not doing this for attention. I just think that representation and visibility are so important. I actually hope that one day videos like this and the whole coming out process are just not necessary. But until then, you know, I’m going to do my best and do my part to cultivate a culture that’s accepting, that’s compassionate. And I’m going to start by donating $100,000 to the Trevor Project. They’re an incredible organization. They’re the No. 1 suicide prevention service for L.G.B.T.Q. youth in America, and they’re truly doing incredible things. And I’m very excited to be a part of it to help in any way that I can. And I’m really pumped to see what the future holds.

The Raiders defensive lineman came out in a video posted on social media and said he would donate $100,000 to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention efforts for L.G.B.T.Q. youth.CreditCredit…John Bazemore/Associated Press

Consider the tone of the responses that have so far followed Nassib’s announcement. The lack of public recrimination and the type of bullying disgust that gay athletes have endured for years.

His message has been widely hailed. Kudos came quickly: from the N.F.L. commissioner, from stars across the league, from the Raiders’ owner and from Coach Jon Gruden.

With a mix of delight and awe, Kopay watched it all unfold from his small apartment in Palm Springs, Calif.

“Looking at all of this, seeing the reaction to Carl’s announcement, it gives me a surge of contentment,” he said. “But I have to say, I thought this would happen 40 years ago.”

He noted the clutch of retired N.F.L. players who have recently made their sexual identity publicly known, and the large numbers in women’s sports like basketball and tennis. But an active player coming out in the N.F.L., a league still basking in a soup of toxic masculinity and macho posturing? For Kopay, a seeker of true change in sports, that has always been the holy grail.

“I thought that when I came out it would not be long before players in the league followed me,” he said. “But I had to wait. Oh, did I have to wait.”

Kopay, who was a running back, recalled the 1960s and ’70s, when he lined up for a series of teams in an N.F.L. career that stretched nearly a decade. He didn’t hide his sexuality. Most of his teammates and coaches knew. He remembers that Vince Lombardi, who coached Kopay in Washington, was particularly supportive.

But going public? Not a chance.

Years later, Sam tried to break that mold. When he told his truth after his final season at Missouri, a profound societal shift was underway. A little over a year later, the Supreme Court would finally make gay marriage legal in the United States.

Still, the football world was not ready. On draft night, TV cameras zoomed in as Sam kissed his boyfriend on national television. Cue the bleating anger from some fans, the weak-kneed squeamishness from some retrograde corners of the league.

The St. Louis Rams cut Sam in training camp and, despite having been one of the best defenders in college, he was out of football a year after being drafted.

Jake Bain knew all about Michael Sam’s story. “What I took from watching that unfold was wariness,” he said.

Back then, Bain was entering high school in St. Louis, and already a football sensation in youth leagues. Watching the trouble endured by Sam made Bain, who now identifies as pansexual, feel he should keep quiet about his own sexuality.

Still, as time passed and he began confiding in counselors, his confidence and self-understanding grew. He came out during a speech at a school assembly. Soon the story of the gay state champion football star was in the local newspapers, on TV, posted on the internet. Along with support came derision. Opponents peppered him with extra hits and verbal barbs. Protesters from a hate group that calls itself a church showed up at his school, shouting that he was headed for hell.

In 2018, the college football prospect Jake Bain came out as gay and went on to play at Indiana State. “I wish I’d had a Carl Nassib to look up to as an example,” he said.Credit…A J Mast for The New York Times

Bain ended up at Indiana State. He became one of the few openly L.G.B.T.Q. players in Division I football. The team and coaches there were supportive, he said, but as the headlines kept coming about his sexuality so did the pressure and the venomous hatred, especially online.

Bain spiraled into depression. He said that after friends found out he was cutting himself, he entered a mental hospital for three days. The experience made him realize that he had to walk away from football. The pressure that sprang from his decision to come out proved too much.

“I wish I’d had a Carl Nassib to look up to as an example,” said Bain, now a student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “But I just missed out. Now we have a player from the N.F.L.” He added, “Just knowing that this is happening is a powerful truth for me and all the young kids out there who dream of playing in the league.”

Dave Kopay could not agree more.

“To see someone out there like Carl, to know what he will represent to so many, I just can’t get over the emotions,” he said. “His example shows what I have been saying for years to young people: ‘Relax. Just be happy with who you are and don’t be afraid to tell the world. There will be critics, but there will also be love and support. Just make it happen, with no shame, because we are on the right path.’”

Indeed, we are.

Resistance to change — to full inclusion and equal treatment, no matter one’s sexual or gender identity — is still with us. It still must be fought by anyone who cares deeply for justice.

But we’re on the right path.

I hope someday soon I won’t be writing about this because it won’t even be news.