By Kate Ryan
NEW YORK, Aug 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The U.S. National Football League is ready to embrace and support open LGBT+ players, football veteran Ryan Russell said on Friday after coming out as bisexual.
The defensive end who played for the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers came out in an essay posted by the sports channel ESPN this week, making him the only openly LGBT+ professional athlete in the four major U.S. pro sports leagues.
"The NFL is looking for an opportunity to support LGBT athletes," Russell, 27, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
"There's a kind of stigma that the NFL is conservative or however you might put it, but I believe it's an issue of visibility and opportunity. This is a moment to show everyone what the NFL is made of."
Russell, who was sidelined last season by a shoulder injury, said in his essay that he wanted to be open and honest with any team who might sign him for the new season, which kicks off on Sept. 5. The free agent said he is expecting an offer.
The NFL has yet to see an openly gay or bisexual player on the field, and fewer than 10 have come as gay in retirement.
"Out of love, admiration and respect, I want the next team to sign me valuing me for what I do and knowing who I truly am," Russell wrote.
Russell said the response from former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaches, as well as former NFL and college teammates and NFL representatives in the hours following his post was overwhelmingly positive.
"All the messages that I got yesterday, encouragement from young athletes, from professional athletes, from athletes in different sports makes me think a change is coming where people are more comfortable being themselves."
Russell said he came out to his best friend and his family last year, then began sharing with friends in the league who he said were supportive and understanding. Knowing "the team" had his back made the public statement less harrowing.
Still, a slew of social media posts attacked Russell, from homophobic tweets to suggestions that he keep his sexuality out of the public conversation and stick to talking about the game.
"Man the hell wit #RyanRussell why does your sexuality has to be announce? A straight person ain't announcing their straight stop forcing ppl into y'all lifestyle," wrote @tweezy6.
"We don't care! Stick to football dammit #RyanRussell" tweeted @mwood1229.
In 2014, player Michael Sam opened up about being gay before being drafted to the St. Louis Rams, but was ultimately cut from the team before playing a professional game.
Sam went on to play for the Montreal Alouettes as the first openly gay player in the Canadian Football League before retiring for mental health reasons in 2015.
Russell said the media frenzy around Sam, coupled with his own assumptions that he had to sacrifice his sexuality for the game, kept him closeted at that time.
But now that he has come out, Russell believes more players will follow suit.
"I think that a big way I can help is to get on an NFL team and get back on the field, said Russell.
"Sunday night when I make a play, yes it's about the team, but maybe that little kid who needed to see someone like me making a play will see that. Visibility is key."
Retired football player Ryan O'Callaghan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation this week he believed there is at least one gay or bisexual player on every team in the league, saying he had heard personally from many.
Russell said he sought O'Callaghan's advice before going public, and said the retired player encouraged him to "speak his truth."
In 2017, the league launched NFL Pride, an affinity group meant to support LGBT+ employees and create a more inclusive environment, and in 2019 it sponsored the New York Pride parade.
(Reporting by Kate Ryan, Editing by Chris Michaud
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