“I just wanted to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay.”
With those words, Carl Nassib, a defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders, forever changed the face of the National Football League. While others came out when they were retired or unsigned, Nassib is the first gay player to do so while active in the league. The occasion presents opportunities for revolutionary LGBTQ+ progress in America’s most popular pro sports league. To achieve this, however, the NFL, Raiders, and Nassib would do well to implement the team’s past winning strategy.
Late owner Al Davis had one guiding rule for his Raiders: “Just win, baby.” In other words, he didn’t care what his players did off the field as long as they won where it counted. This rule served his teams well, garnering five Super Bowl appearances and three victories during his career.
Publicity-wise, the Raiders and the NFL are off to a promising start. Both released statements heralding Nassib’s coming-out. The NFL also matched his $100,000 donation to the Trevor Project, an organization that supports LGBTQ+ youth in crisis. These are encouraging developments from a league that, for many years, was viewed as a fetid cesspool of toxic masculinity and homophobia. The NFL should be rightly praised for its recent inclusive moves (although, due to Nassib’s three-year $25 million contract, it also has a financial incentive). Regardless, it has a long history of exclusivity to overcome to achieve a welcoming reputation.
This is where the winning formula of Davis’s rule comes into play. Stay tuned to NFL Network long enough, and you’ll eventually hear it said that the NFL is a “copycat league” and is slow to change. It’s clichéd but mostly true — with the exception of a few like Davis.
For example, from its earliest origins, the overall strategy of NFL teams was based on running, rather than passing the ball, to score touchdowns and win games. Davis challenged that philosophy with his emphasis on what he called the “vertical game,” which is just an insider’s way of saying his teams threw long passes to circumnavigate the defenses designed to stop a run. It worked, and it changed the way the game is played.
To encapsulate, while the league may be slow to evolve, its copycat nature means that when change does occur, the results can be revolutionary. If the other teams follow the lead of the NFL and the Raiders in welcoming Nassib, then the league will take a giant step forward for LGBTQ+ athletes at every level.
In coming out, Nassib is now the unofficial standard-bearer for LGBTQ+ professional athletes in the United States. He’ll be under the glare of media lights not normally directed at a nonstarting player listed third on the depth chart, and the world will be watching his movements as well as how he is treated by other NFL players. So far, Nassib has the backing and support of the NFL and his team. But by performing well and helping the Raiders “just win” on the field, he will go the distance in making the league and the fan base more inclusive and affirming for other LGBTQ+ athletes.