There has never been anyone who has been publicly out as gay or bisexual while playing in the National Football League (NFL). Six former NFL players have come out publicly as gay after they retired. Michael Sam was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the 2014 NFL Draft, and thus became the first publicly gay player drafted in the league, but was released before the start of the regular season. He became the first publicly gay player to play in the Canadian Football League in August 2015. In college football, Division III player Conner Mertens came out as bisexual in January 2014, becoming the first active college football player at any level to publicly come out as bisexual. In August 2014, Arizona State player Chip Sarafin became the first publicly out active Division I player when he came out as gay. In 2017, Scott Frantz publicly came out as gay, joining My-King Johnson as two of the first openly gay players in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. Later that same year, Frantz became the first openly gay college football player to play in a game for an NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision school. In 2018, Bradley Kim of the Air Force Academy came out as gay, thus becoming the first openly gay football player to play for any military academy in the United States; open homosexuality was forbidden in the U.S. Armed Forces until 2012. In August 2019, Ryan O'Callaghan, who played 2006-2011 for the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots, said, “I think it’s safe to say there’s at least one on every team who is either gay or bisexual. A lot of guys still see it as potentially having a negative impact on their career.”
The generally masculine environment that exists in football, along with the hypermasculinity promoted by sportscasters, make it difficult for a player to come out. Heterosexuality is flaunted in NFL locker rooms with the passing of pornographic magazines and videos, and visits to strip clubs. Gay slurs are sometimes used in the locker room.
While Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi was known to treat his players roughly in practices and during games, he insisted on unconditional respect for gay players and front office staff. Demanding "Nothing But Acceptance" from players and coaches toward all people, Lombardi would fire a coach or release a player should they insult the sexual orientation of anyone. In Washington, Lombardi's assistant general manager, David Slatterly, was gay, as was PR director Joe Blair, who was described as Lombardi's "right-hand man." According to son Vince Lombardi, Jr., "He saw everyone as equals, and I think having a gay brother (Hal) was a big factor in his approach...I think my father would've felt, 'I hope I've created an atmosphere in the locker room where this would not be an issue at all. And if you do have an issue, the problem will be yours because my locker room will tolerate nothing but acceptance.'" Upon his arrival in Washington, Lombardi was aware of tight end Jerry Smith's gay sexual orientation. “Lombardi protected and loved Jerry,” said former teammate Dave Kopay. Lombardi brought Smith into his office and told him that his sexual orientation would never be an issue as long as he was coaching the Redskins; Smith would be judged solely on his on-the-field performance and contribution to the team's success. Under Lombardi's leadership Smith flourished, becoming an integral part of Lombardi's offense, and was voted a First Team All-Pro for the first time in his career, which was also Lombardi's only season as Redskin head coach. Lombardi invited other gay players to training camp, and would privately hope they would prove they could earn a spot on the team. At the Washington Redskins training camp in 1969, Ray McDonald was a gay player, with sub-par skills, who was trying to make the Redskin roster again, but this time with Lombardi as the Redskins' new head coach. True to his word, Lombardi told running back coach, George Dickson, "I want you to get on McDonald and work on him and work on him – and if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you'll be out of here before your ass hits the ground."
Prior to Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, San Francisco 49ers player Chris Culliver on media day during an interview with The Artie Lange Show, was asked if he thought any gay players were on his team which he replied, "No, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do ... Can't be with that sweet stuff." He also opined that any gay players should wait 10 years after retiring before coming out. Culliver received backlash for his comments. Then-Baltimore Ravens player Brendon Ayanbadejo, an advocate for same-sex marriage, estimated that 50 percent of the league agreed with Culliver, 25 percent disagreed, and 25 percent were accepting of everyone even if they were not in complete support of issues such as gay marriage. Culliver later apologized for his "ugly comments" that were "not what I feel in my heart".
The new NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011 contained added protections banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2013, the NFL Rookie Symposium planned for the first time to have speakers on the issue of sexual orientation. That same year, NFL player Chris Kluwe was released by the Minnesota Vikings, which he believed was due to his being outspoken in support of same-sex marriage. He said that special teams coach Mike Priefer in 2012 made homophobic remarks and criticized the player for his views on same-sex marriage, a charge Priefer denied. Kluwe also alleged that head coach Leslie Frazier told him to stop speaking out on same-sex marriage. In December, former teammates on the 1993 Houston Oilers said that at least two key players on the roster were generally known by the team to be gay, and were accepted by the team. Teammate Bubba McDowell said showering with the gay teammates was “no big deal.” In 2014, ESPN reported on Michael Sam's showering habits in the St. Louis Rams locker room, but later apologized that it "failed to meet the standards we have set in reporting on LGBT-related topics in sports."
Players coming out
Division II college football player Brian Sims came out as gay to his team in 2000 while playing for Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, and publicly told his story in 2009. Alan Gendreau was openly gay to his Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders football team from 2008 through 2011, but they made no mention of it to the media. Otherwise, he could have been the first publicly out gay active player in Division I college football. Outsports, a Web site specializing in LGBTQ people in sports, released his story about being a gay football player on April 23, 2013. In January 2014, Conner Mertens of the Division III Willamette Bearcats publicly came out as bisexual, becoming the first active college football player at any level to publicly come out as bisexual.
After he retired, NFL player David Kopay in 1975 was the first major professional team-sport athlete to come out as gay. Many experts believe that the first openly gay active NFL player will not be a current athlete who comes out, but instead an already out high school or college player who ends up in the NFL. CBSSports.com reported in April 2013 that one NFL team had a player that was not openly gay, but his teammates were aware that he was gay and did not care. That same month, Ayanbadejo said there were up to four NFL players who were considering coming out as gay on the same day with the hope that any backlash would be shared and the pressure on one person reduced. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell emphasized that sexual orientation discrimination was unacceptable in the NFL. His statement came after players said they were asked during the NFL Scouting Combine if they liked girls. In November 2018, former player Jeff Rohrer became the first known current or former NFL player to be in a same-sex marriage.
In February 2014, Sam publicly came out as gay after his college career had ended, and became the first publicly gay player drafted in the NFL when he was selected in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. Six months later, Chip Sarafin came out as gay, becoming the first active Division I player to come out as gay. The following season another Division I offensive lineman, Mason Darrow of Princeton, also came out as gay publicly. In August 2015, Sam became the first publicly gay player to play in a Canadian Football League (CFL) regular season game.
In 2017, Scott Frantz publicly came out as gay, joining My-King Johnson as two of the first openly gay players in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. Later that same year, Frantz became the first openly gay college football player to play in a game for an NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision school.
In 2018, Bradley Kim of the Air Force Academy came out as gay, thus becoming the first openly gay football player to play for any military academy in the United States; open homosexuality was forbidden in the U.S. Armed Forces until 2012.
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