Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
Four years ago, I wrote a story about My-King Johnson, one of the first openly gay Division I football recruits. The hubbub around his commitment to the University of Arizona took on a very familiar form: that of the ever more specific “first,” where it’s hard to gauge whether the attention is weakening the named exclusionary barrier or building it up even taller and stronger.
The over four decades since NFL player Dave Kopay came out shortly after retiring from the league in the mid-’70s are, as writer David Kamp effectively described in Slate this week, a telling rebuke of the idea that “firsts” breed progress. It wasn’t incremental; it wasn’t like each first made it a little easier for the ones that followed. Most people don’t know the history, don’t know Dave Kopay’s name — if they know Michael Sam’s, it’s as a barrier-breaker and a massive bust. I do believe that sports exist at the frontier of gender politics, but in this specific instance, football hasn’t led the way. Those firsts didn’t build on each other, through absolutely no fault of the people responsible for them; instead, celebrating them put a Band-Aid on decades of private pain.
Instead, Nassib’s decision to come out is the result of a much broader societal shift — one fueled, in some aspects, by sports, but also by activists and politics and pop culture. That shift has made it so that a man whose career epitomizes a brutal, violent, American ideal of masculinity can feel safe speaking openly about his sexuality. That shift, this first is progress — or rather, evidence of progress. We got to this place so that Carl, and hopefully soon others, can be themselves without fear (or at least with as much fearlessness as any of us can muster when it comes to being true to ourselves in a public forum).
My-King didn’t make it to the NFL. He was released by Arizona after his redshirt freshman year; he never played in a game, and transferred to the New Mexico Military Academy. “This young man needs to know, too, how helpful it’s going to be for him to make it,” Kopay told me in 2017, when I spoke to him for that piece. “Football is that kind of a game, you have to prove yourself every play… He’s going to get every one of those guys’ number one shot.”
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Nassib already has made it; he chose to come out in the middle of his career rather than at the beginning, effective insurance against bigotry during the most vulnerable period of his development as a player. Now, any discrimination will likely be obvious; there’s precedent for both his play and how he has been treated within the NFL. As much as it seems like he’s gone about making this landmark decision in the safest way possible, it’s still hard not to get emotional watching the smile spread across Nassib’s face when he says, “I’m gay — I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, but I finally feel comfortable enough to get it off my chest.”
“But the feeling that I felt after that first interview…it was the greatest sense of joy,” Kopay told me of the first TV interview he did after he came out in the Washington Star newspaper in 1975. “If you saw me sitting there, I think it comes across, too, because I know I was feeling it inside.”
In the face of all the inequality and seemingly intractable unfairness, it feels so, so good to witness and share in Nassib’s and — belatedly — Kopay’s joy. “How often do we feel joy today?” Kopay asked me at the time. “I try to find joy every day, you know what I mean?”
I asked Kopay what he would tell Johnson, which I imagine he would also tell Nassib. “You’ve already done an incredibly important thing,” Kopay said. “Now be proud of who you are and where you came from.”