OPINION: Michael Sam paved the way for Carl Nassib, and we shouldn’t forget

Yesterday, Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib made history as the first active NFL Player to come out of the closet. This is a huge for an NFL Player to come out of the closet, especially during Pride month. 

“But, wait. Doesn’t that title belong to Michael Sam?” This seemed to be an echoing thought that mostly everyone had after hearing the news. 

Back in 2014, Michael Sam announced that he was a proud gay man to ESPN and the New York Times; he wanted to come out publicly before he was drafted. 

“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told the New York Times. “I just want to own my truth.”

“I am an openly, proud gay man,” Sam told ESPN.

Although he was selected in the seventh round of the NFL draft, and competed for a spot and made his preseason debut on the field with the St. Louis Rams, Sam was cut and never actually drafted to play for the Rams — despite ending the preseason with eleven tackles and three sacks. 

Sam eventually went on to spend a little time on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad, and in 2015 he transferred to the Canadian Football League and played for the Montreal Alouettes for a short period of time in 2015. He retired from Football completely in August of 2015.  

So, technically, Michael Sam is the first openly gay player to be DRAFTED into the NFL. Carl Nassib is the first ACTIVE NFL player (meaning he was drafted onto the 53-man team roster, has played during the regular season, and is currently still playing) to come out of the closet. 

Now, technicality aside, let me make something abundantly clear: Michael Sam paved the way for Carl Nassib. 

One could also argue that Carl Nassib is being praised because the sociopolitical climate is changing and people are becoming more accepting and understanding of queer people in 2021 than they were seven years ago in 2014. This could absolutely be true, and in manys ways, the way Nassib is being embraced and supported is indicative of how far we’ve come as a society. This is absolutely a good thing — if true. 

Nassib just came out yesterday, and he hasn’t had a chance to lose any endorsement deals or be run out of the NFL. This isn’t pessimism, it’s just apprehensiveness to call this a celebratory moment before we’ve examined all the consequential possibilities. Society is traditionally quite shitty to queer people, and even more shitty to Black people. And if you’re Black and queer — well, you go through what Michael Sam went through. 

During his time at the Rams’ training camp in 2014, Sam seemed to be doing just fine. He picked up an endorsement deal with Visa before he was even drafted, and he seemed to be doing well athletically. Then, BOOM. He wasn’t drafted, and many were shocked. 

The media seemed to only be able to focus on his sexuality, which made sports fans and prospective teammates more reluctant to accept him. No one knew what to expect from Sam, and there was no road map for this because it had never been done before. 

But, as Michelle Garcis said in a column for Out Magazine, “LGBTQ+ America — progressive America — pinned so many hopes on Sam. It wasn’t just the NFL who failed to see they could have made history with a decent enough player. It wasn’t just the media who chewed him up and spit him out. It wasn’t the people within the sport who couldn’t be bothered to show their support. It wasn’t just his representatives who treated him like an act in a dog and pony show (who, incidentally, Sam publicly fired, perhaps too late). It was us. It was me, too.”

“I think it’s an unfair ask for an athlete who is so young, to stand in front of the world and be ready to talk eloquently about his struggle,” said openly gay former player and NFL consultant Wade Davis. 

“There are three asks happening at the same time, specifically if they’re a person of color: You have to represent your race, you have to represent your sport, and you have to represent your sexual orientation, all at the exact same time and do all of them flawlessly.”

What’s clear is that, had Michael Sam been a white man, the decision to come out wouldn’t have been such a heavy load to carry. This is not to take anything away from Carl Nassib, who I am sure has gone through his own set of troubles and hardships because of his sexuality. Being queer is not easy.

If you know that being queer isn’t easy, then it’s not really hard to gauge what it was like to be Black and queer in the NFL for Michael Sam. Being the first openly gay player to be drafted to the NFL, with the added pressure to perform and prove yourself at an even higher level because of your race and sexuality, is a feat in itself. 

It seems that all of this, along with having to dodge questions from the media who only wanted to focus on his sexuality and not his talent, and even having to deal with the hate he received from the Black community regarding his white partner, is the reason why Sam announced his retirement from football in 2015, citing his mental health

“The last 12 months have been very difficult for me, to the point where I became concerned with my mental health,” Sam said in a Twitter post in August of 2015. 

“Because of this I am going to step away from the game at this time. I thank the Alouettes for this opportunity and hope to be back on the field soon. Thank you all for your understanding and support.”

Again, acknowledging that this was probably a bit harder for Michael Sam than it was for Carl Nassib is not taking anything away from the bravery it has taken for Nassib to live in his truth. It is just a fact that LGBTQ People of Color are more severely impacted by discrimination of all kinds. Sam even took to Twitter to congratulate Nassib personally, and to thank him for making a donation to The Trevor Project. 

“Carl Nassib thank you for owning your truth and especially your donation to the @TrevorProject,” Sam said on Twitter. “LBGTQ people are more likely to commit suicide than heterosexuals. I hope and pray people will take note to this. Thank you again Carl and look forward to seeing you play on the field.”

But I think that many times, it becomes quite easy for us to forget accomplishments that Black people have made, or to invalidate the struggles of Black people that sacrificed so much so that others could walk a bit easier. 

As Conor Orr stated in Sports Illustrated, “Sam, essentially, gave up his dream of playing football to be the league and media’s crash test dummy, as everyone in football’s orbit pinballed through ways to have thoughtful and productive conversations about sexuality and acceptance in the locker room.” 

“The visibility of LGBTQ folks in society is so much more prominent now,” Wade Davis stated. “Carl’s announcement and Carl being in an NFL locker room will have a different feel because so many players and coaches know someone who is LGBTQ. It won’t be the first time they’ve engaged with someone who identifies as gay. So the conversation around it will probably be a lot less, because the proximity is now different.”

Davis also refers to Sam as a “revolutionary in every sense of the word, who did what most people don’t have the courage to do.”

So, yes Carl Nassib is courageous, and he deserves to be applauded and uplifted by the community at this time. But, let’s not forget that Michael Sam essentially sacrificed his career so that people like Carl Nassib and other professional sports players could walk just a little easier. 

Kyle Jackson

Kyle Jackson (He/Him) is Senior Staff Writer at Gray Jones Media, and additionally works as a writer, editor and theatre artist/actor. A native of New Orleans, Louisiana, he studied at Dillard University, received a BA in Theatre from Morgan State University, an MS in Arts Administration from Drexel University, and completed the British American Drama Academy’s Midsummer in Oxford Programme in 2017. Having lived in Baltimore, the Washington, DC area, Philadelphia and New York City, he now resides and works in London, United Kingdom.