The NFL season is upon us, and we know that because Taylor Swift showed up in Kansas City a few weeks ago, and then in New York for the Chiefs vs. Jets game. All signs point to Swift as the early favorite for NFL MVP. .
Joking aside, the NFL has had its share of issues over the years, mainly with life-threatening or career-ending injuries on the field, the lack of Black head coaches, and, after
Carl Nassib's retirement
, the dearth of out queer players in the league. These aspects are all disheartening.
I compare my relationship to the NFL with my association with the Catholic Church, i.e. I believe in God (the Pittsburgh Steelers), but not necessarily everything about the Catholic Church (NFL).
Four years ago, Ryan “RK” Russell, who played three seasons in the NFL from 2015-2018 as a defensive end with the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, wrote a beautifully written
essay for ESPN
where he talked about being bisexual. Russell turned his eloquent writing into a book,
The Yards Between Us
, where he details his connections with both men and women and navigating his secret while living out his passion playing football in the NFL.
The book is being optioned into a television series tentatively scheduled to run on Netflix.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Russell, before the start of the football season, to talk about his life, his sexuality, and his time in the NFL. “Writing the book was overwhelmingly terrifying, and gratifying at the same time,” he explained. “It was important to make sure my point of view contained the right messages of being genuine and hopeful. It was also very cathartic. You have to go to certain places in your life that might not be easy to talk about.”
Russell said that it was during high school that he first became aware of his sexuality. “Growing up in Texas, there was only one openly gay guy, and his locker was near mine. At that time, it was all about being masculine, and I admit to the fact that I made sure everyone knew I had strong feelings against being gay. It was a difficult environment, because you’d be bullied and be isolated.”
Russell said that same fear was also prevalent during his NFL days. “There was a fear of being the first, and in this case, the first active player to come out, and that if I did, teams wouldn’t sign me, fellow players wouldn’t understand me, and that I’d be isolated. Again, and it's no secret, the league is known for being hyper-masculine, and players need to be tough. And society still has a stigma associated with being queer and the fact that being queer doesn’t include those attributes, which we all know is wrong.”
In his book Russell writes, “I had a realistic path to achieving a dream — but I wasn’t sure whose dream it was. The questions in my head grew louder. Self-doubt about my sexuality and my identity overflowed into worries about the future.”
Russell said that while not every player may harbor negative sentiments toward a queer player, it’s an attitude that is reinforced or at least not confronted, and tolerating that attitude is treacherous for anyone who might be in the closet and thinking about coming out.
“What I thought I had to do was compartmentalize my life, and keep my sexuality a secret while doing all the things that would confirm I was straight, and that’s very difficult to sustain. You can’t live your life separated like that.”
I told Russell that I
spoke with out former NFL offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan
after the death of former NFL player (and convicted murderer) Aaron Hernandez, and the revelation, by members of his family, that he was gay or bi. I explained that the column talked about how hiding his sexuality might have led to his violent behavior, and if Russell agreed that might be the case with Hernandez and other athletes who might be acting out.
“Not being able to be your true self is so detrimental,” Russell pointed out. “Keeping secret your identity and your sexuality is such a heavy burden to carry. So in order to run from it, to numb the pain, you can turn to drinking heavily or using drugs. That’s why therapy is so important. It helps relieve all that chaos.”
Russell also said that being Black and bisexual can also be a double whammy. “There are such a small number of queer Black athletes, and it is so important that those of us who are out support each other and do our best to be beacons of home in order to combat both homophobia and racism.”
The reaction to his coming out, and to his book, has been nothing but positive, according to Russell. “There’s been so much encouragement and so much love. It’s all overwhelming and so much appreciated.”
For now, Russell is pleased that he finally put all his life and feelings into a book, and he’s got a bright future to look forward to. “I want to leave a legacy of starting a nonprofit for
+ youth in sports and want to be there to help other players come out and be their authentic selves. And I also would like to continue writing and storytelling. There’s a passion there for sure, and I want to pursue that.”
To that point, a section of Russell's book deals with his feeling watching
Michael Sam come out
. "I remember I tried to differentiate us in my mind as much as possible. He was gay, not bisexual, so naming his identity publicly seemed more clear-cut, or maybe he saw it as his only choice. He was SEC Defensive Player of the Year, so he would have gotten a shot at the NFL regardless. I was in the Big Ten, and Purdue wasn’t one of the top schools in our conference: my future opportunities weren’t so obvious."
"The video of Sam and his boyfriend kissing when he was drafted played every hour on the hour that draft day, exposing what a lot of my peers, teachers, and family really thought about two men kissing. But I did all these mental gymnastics because deep down, I knew that in the most significant ways, we were the same. We were both different from what we were told from birth that a football player should be. We were Black, which meant society already judged us more harshly. And we both wanted to play in the NFL more than anything. Our very being threatened our biggest dream. I was afraid for him. I was afraid for myself."
I told Russell, whether it meant anything or not, that I thought his writing was exceptional, and the emotion of all he was dealing with came through loud and clear. There is a genuineness to his book that is beyond reproach; I see a burgeoning career for him as a wordsmith. On to the second
John Casey is senior editor of
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