There are times, when writing this column, that I speak to people that I could talk to for hours. LZ Granderson is one of those people. He’s a true conversationalist, which probably explains why he wears so many different hats. He’s not only a Los Angeles Times columnist, but also an ESPN Radio host, an ABC News reporter, and this month he launched a new podcast.
Life Out Loud draws from his own experience as a gay Black father, and he uses his wonderful gift of gab to engage in conversations with some of the most influential and inspirational people in the LGBTQ+ community, including politicians, actors, activists, and others that match Granderson's eclectic background.
Granderson, with his sports background, recently hosted an athletes roundtable podcast that featured former out NBA player Jason Collins, the out retiring president of the Golden State Warriors, Rick Welts, and Keyshawn Johnson, former NFL player and openly straight ally. They unpacked why more athletes haven’t come out and what the leagues can do to help support future generations of LGBTQ+ athletes.
They of course talked about Carl Nassib. It was in this context that I decided to pick Granderson’s brain, and dive more into the implications of the announcement last week by the Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman that he is gay. He became the first active player to come out in NFL history.
I asked Granderson if he was a bit shell-shocked, like I was, when he heard the news. “I was working out at home, I grabbed the phone to change a song, and I saw the bulletin on CNN. I had to make sure it was real, so I checked other news sources. When I verified it was true, I cried for about 15 minutes. Seriously, it was uncontrollable weeping. It was a watershed moment particularly for those who have been fighting for a long time to create an environment to come out in one of the big-four sports leagues.”
Granderson added that he started thinking about all of the conversations he’s had with closeted and like-minded individuals over the years, and all those who have been waiting and thinking about coming out.
Did Granderson think Nassib's announcement will spur other gay players to make that bold move and come out? “I don’t know. As everyone knows, the circumstances around coming out are unique to each individual. There is no one size fits all. Some remain closeted because of their religious beliefs, and the fear that they will lose the support of their families who are religious. Some just don’t want to disappoint their families, so they don’t even want to think about what the reaction might be.
“Then there are still those who haven’t come out of the closet to themselves yet. They are still processing, still experimenting. Others just don’t want to put a label on themselves, and they don’t want to identify as queer. Different reasons inspire people in a lot of different ways. So, my guess is that while they're happy for Carl, many just won’t come out simply because he did.”
How much does the reaction from other players come into play when making the decision to either come out or stay in the closet? “Similarly, there’s just no cookie-cutter reaction to how teammates and other players might respond. You have some athletes who are very comfortable in the LGBTQ ecosystem, and others who never knew anyone that was gay. Sports really opens a world that is a melting pot. You can have privileged players next to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. You have all stripes, shapes and sizes, and as such you have varying degrees of acceptance.”
Granderson also added that considerations are also given to what the front office and the coaching staff might think. “Carl has a head coach in Jon Gruden, who is supportive. Likewise with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has a gay brother. But what about his defensive coordinator? And others on the coaching staff? They might not be as open-minded. My guess is that Carl worked with the front office, the coaches and his teammates before coming out, so that he was assured of a positive and affirming environment. Most likely, they were all aware that it was happening and prepared for that. The bottom line is that everybody is new at this.”
How about the fans? I asked Granderson if fan reaction in a liberal city like San Francisco might be more welcoming than somewhere in the Midwest or the South? “First of all, half the games Carl plays will be in Las Vegas, so the fans will probably be supportive or just get used to it over the season. When teams go on the road, they are usually there for a couple days, so there’s opportunities for fan interaction. I don’t think you can predict what the reaction will be just because a team is either in a rural or urban environment.”
How does Granderson feel about Nassib being very low-key about his revelations thus far? “If it’s good for him, it’s great for me. One of the things that is problematic in our moment is the collective mindset when a person of note comes out. We expect them to be an activist, make all the rounds on the TV shows, and talk to journalists like you and me. That’s a bit unfair and assumes a lot from that person. It’s such a delicate time for them after they make that very scary decision about their personal lives.”
Granderson pointed out that having to make those media rounds, and do all that talking, puts additional pressure on somebody like Nassib, who mentioned on his Instagram post that he is a very private person. “If Carl doesn’t want to be an outspoken leader, he should be able to make that choice for himself, and we have to be ok with that. Yes, we love for him coming out, but we also must respect the fact that he has the right to live in a space he’s comfortable with.”
I brought up the Michael Sam conundrum. He was presumably cut because he wasn’t big enough, or fast enough, but we can’t say definitively that his sexuality wasn’t a consideration in the decision by two NFL teams to let him go. How will we be sure that if Nassib gets cut, or traded, that his sexuality won’t have something to do with it?
“The reality is that gay players are everywhere. They’ve played in the Super Bowl; they’ve been around for as long as the game has. The question is do we accept that all decisions about Nassib’s future are based on his performance or sexuality? Or is the decision financially driven because the team has to maintain a salary cap? Or is it behavior off the field? It's Carl’s turn to face this. How will we know he wasn’t moved because he was gay? We won’t fully know.”
Granderson explained that on the flip side, Nassib could have a couple of bad seasons, and the team might be afraid of the backlash of removing him.
Granderson hopes for the opposite of that scenario, and that Nassib goes on to have many successful years ahead of him in the NFL. When former NBA player Jason Collins came out and played only one season with the Brooklyn Nets, there wasn’t much time to analyze the longterm effect of his sexuality on the game.
“All we can do is be supportive, and hope that he does his job well and helps his team win. The hard part for him is playing on Sundays. That said, we have to continue to hold the NFL accountable if there are slurs hurled his way by opposing players or fans in the stands. The NFL needs to keep supporting him and any other players who might come out in the future.
“We will soon find out how Carl is accepted. NFL training camps start in a couple weeks, and the season opens in two months. Being the first may be a double-edged sword for him.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.