NFL free agent Ryan Russell is ready to play, but he’s also ready to live his truth. In an essay published Thursday on ESPN.com, the former Dallas Cowboys player came out as a “talented football player, a damn good writer, a loving son, an overbearing brother, a caring friend, a loyal lover, and a bisexual man.”
“Today, I have two goals: returning to the NFL, and living my life openly,” he wrote. “I want to live my dream of playing the game I've worked my whole life to play, and being open about the person I've always been.”
The 27-year-old was drafted in the fifth round out of Purdue University in 2015. During his four seasons in the NFL, the journeyman has played for three teams: the Cowboys in 2015, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016 and 2017, and the Buffalo Bills in 2018. After being released by the Bills in September, Russell is currently undrafted for the upcoming season.
In finding a new home for the 2019 season, Russell said that he hopes to end the stigma around LGBTQ+ athletes, noting that there “isn't a single openly LGBTQ player in the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball or the NHL.”
“I want to change that,” he said. “For me, for other athletes who share these common goals, and for the generations of [LGBTQ+] athletes who will come next.”
Russell said what kept him in the closet up until this point was the fear that being honest about who he is would be labeled as a “distraction” for his teammates, the same way it was for former defensive end Michael Sam in 2015 after he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round out of the University of Missouri.
Although Sam made history as the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, his short-lived stint was plagued by questions about locker room cohesion and whether his sexual orientation would impact the team’s play. He was cut during the preseason.
“The competition is so stiff to stay in the league, that any small mark can lead a front office to choose another guy for your job,” Russell said. “Whether you're gay or straight or bisexual, you're always making sacrifices for the sake of your career, whether it's not going out during the season, or working out during your downtime. For me, not publicly acknowledging my sexuality became one of those sacrifices.”
But today his opinion has changed. After losing his best friend and former Purdue teammate, Joe Gilliam, to cancer in 2018, Russell began to reevaluate his life. Now he believes that not only will his sexuality not prove a “distraction” for the team — it will improve his gameplay.
“I know now truth is survival, and that we cannot survive in this world without vulnerability and love,” he said. “Also, the best version of myself, the best partner, the best friend, the best teammate, is one that's open and honest. Next it will be a signed player, then a Pro Bowler, then a Super Bowl champion who embraces who he is publicly.”
While Russell is one of the few NFL players to ever publicly address his sexuality, a recent interview suggested there may be many more in the closet.
Former offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan, who came out as gay after being cut from the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011, told Reuters that “there’s at least one on every team who is either gay or bisexual.” He added, “A lot of guys still see it as potentially having a negative impact on their career.”