Authors: Edward M. Kian, Ph.D.
School of Media & Strategic Communications, Oklahoma State University, OK, USA
Edward M. Kian, Ph.D.
School of Media & Strategic Communications
Oklahoma State University
201 Paul Miller Building
Stillwater, OK 74078
Dr. Edward (Ted) M. Kian, Ph.D. is a full professor of Sports Media in the School of Media & Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University. Dr. Kian’s research focuses on sport media, specifically examining portrayals of gender and LGBT in content, new media, attitudes and experiences of sport media members, and sport marketing.
Examining Media Framing of Openly gay NFL Player Carl Nassib
This researched examined mainstream media framing of Carl Nassib becoming the first active, established NFL player to come out as gay. Purpose: Media have historically framed the NFL as a rugged, masculine sport, but media have also been supportive of the few former professional athletes who came out as gay or bisexual. This study examined how media framed an active gay athlete in what is construed as the United States’ most masculine sport. Methods: A textual analysis was conducted to examine media framing of Nassib and his coming out in articles published in the five most popular sport-focused U.S. websites over a two-week period following his announcement. Theories on masculinity were used to guide the study. Results: Four primary themes emerged from the data, most of which showed media were very supportive of Nassib publicly coming out and hailed it as a watershed moment in American sport. Conclusions: Media were supportive of an openly gay player and contended football was ready for this announcement. Applications in Sport: Media will be supportive of the vast majority of openly gay athletes who use sport as a platform to reveal their sexual orientation, and thus coaches and sport organizations should not fear players coming out.
Keywords: LGBT, Gay athletes, Media framing, American football, Hegemonic masculinity, Inclusive masculinity, Online media
In 2021, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to publicly come out as gay (15). An openly gay athlete in the NFL would have been unthinkable to many until recently because hegemonic masculinity has historically flourished in men’s team sports with open homosexuality almost non-existent, especially in sports socially framed as more masculine in nature (22). In the United States, the NFL is by far the most popular and powerful sport league, and American football has long been socially construed as the most masculine participation sport for U.S. boys to play (28).
Basketball player Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete to participate in a regular-season game in 2014 in one of the four most popular American professional team sport leagues: MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL. No active NFL player had previously revealed their homosexuality before Nassib, and all former NFL players who came out publicly as gay did so well after their careers were over (15). Former University of Missouri football star Michael Sam came out before the 2014 NFL Draft in which he was selected by the Los Angeles Rams in the seventh and final round, but Sam never made a regular-season NFL roster and thus never played in an official game. In addition, citing depression and mental-health issues, Sam chose to forego his fledging career in the Canadian Football League which may have deterred other openly gay football players from coming out publicly (30). Nassib completed five full seasons as a regular NFL player before coming out with the Raiders who signed him to a three-year contract worth $25 million before the 2020 season (15).
Nassib, in contrast to those athletes who came out years before, went public at a time of great societal acceptance of gays and lesbians in the United States. Whereas the Supreme Court allowed for legal gay marriage in all 50 states in 2015, it was not until 2021 that 70% of Americans approved of gay marriage in Gallup polling, including for the first time a majority (i.e., 56%) of registered republican party voters (20). The sports world has also become more accepting of gays and lesbians. A survey of more than 800 gay high school and college male-team sport athletes showed that 72% of respondents who came out publicly reported wide acceptance from their teammates and coaches (5). However, the culture inside football locker room may still be less welcoming for gay men than other sports. A recent study (4) found that roughly one-third of respondents from a major college football team had negative attitudes toward gay men, with the more religious players less supportive of homosexuality. Accordingly it is unclear if mainstream media will positively frame an openly gay, active NFL player, because sport media plays a primary role in the rugged, idealized form of masculinity historically framed in coverage of professional football players in the United States (3, 31).
Gay and Bisexual Athletes in Men’s Team sports
U.S. professional men’s team sports emerged in the late 19th Century and became a key part of American culture after World War II (28). However, no former player from any of the four most popular men’s professional U.S. team sports publicly came out as gay or even bisexual until former NFL fullback Dave Kopay did so in 1975 (13). Kopay, who played for five different NFL franchises from 1964-1972, was one of just eight former NFL players who had come out publicly or had their sexual orientation publicized as gay and/or bisexual before Nassib’s recent public revelation. The other six and their NFL career spans were Ray McDonald (1967-68), Jerry Smith (1965-77), Roy Simmons (1979-83), Esera Tuaolo (1991-99), Kwame Harris (2003-08), Ryan O’Callaghan (2006-11), and Ryan Russell (2015-17), and all waited to come out publicly at least four years after their playing careers (6).
The NFL is not alone in its near complete lack of open homosexuality. In fact, the NFL has had more current or former players come out as gay or bisexual than the other three most popular U.S. men’s professional team sports combined. Despite the NBA’s reputation as a socially progressive and gay-friendly major sports organization, John Amaechi is the only former NBA player besides Collins to come out of the closet and his 2007 announcement was met by vitriol by several former players, including former superstar point guard Tim Hardaway who was quoted following Amaechi’s announcement as having said, “I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don’t like gay people, and I don’t like to be around gay people. I’m homophobic” (17, p. 803). No current or former NHL player has ever come out as gay or bisexual. Billy Bean and Glen Burke are the only two former MLB players to come out as gay (10). Both played for a Dodgers organization housed in gay-friendly Los Angeles. Individual professional men’s sports have also had few openly gay athletes. The most successful and recognizable openly gay U.S. male athletes (e.g., diver Greg Louganis) competed in individual sports that media have historically construed as more appropriate for women (23). That may be due to the permeation of hegemonic masculinity throughout men’s sports at all levels.
Hegemonic Masculinity vs. Inclusive Masculinity in Sport
The rise of organized youth team sports in the late 19th Century was largely in response to fears that men would become soft as the United States changed from an agrarian to industrial society (28). Since then, and from early childhood, most American boys and men have been socialized into sport, where they learn the most desirable forms of masculinity and often carry those lessons into adulthood (23). Hegemonic masculinity values men and boys who exhibit the most desired masculine traits such as aggressiveness, assertiveness, and physical dominance (8). Near the bottom of the hegemonic masculine social hierarchy are openly gay men, who by their mere sexual preference challenge traditional notions of masculinity, which is why gay men have often steered away from organized team sports (1). Messner surmised, “The extent of homophobia in the sport world is staggering. Boys (in sport) learn early that to be gay, to be suspected of being gay, or even to be unable to prove one’s heterosexual status is not acceptable” (22, p. 34).
However, more recent research has demonstrated that athletes, sport coaches and leagues, and even sports fans have increasingly become more accepting of gays and lesbians (5, 11). Anderson’s ‘inclusive masculinities’ theory suggests that homosexuality and non-traditional masculine identities are increasingly more accepted throughout Western societies (2). The most mainstream media, however, still frame men’s sports and particularly men’s team sports through a masculine lens that is unwelcoming to narratives that counter that hegemony (19).
Media Framing of Gay Male Athletes
Journalists, communications specialists, and media managers decide what events and people are worthy of receiving coverage. These media professionals then determine which facts, sources, and quotes to include in content. This subjective and influential process is commonly referred to as media framing by scholars (14). Media framing greatly impacts media consumers’ comprehension and opinions on issues (14, 35). A steady stream of scholars over the past half-century found sport media reinforced hegemonic masculinity through focusing the vast majority of content on men’s team sports, through the sexualization of female athletes, and regularly comparing women’s accomplishments to men, and through ignoring women and men who participate in sports that are deemed socially unacceptable for their sex, such as male figure skaters and female weightlifters (34, 36).
Only a few scholarly articles examined media framing of openly gay male athletes, probably because so few gay male athletes have come out publicly. A pair of articles examined media framing of Amaechi’s coming out as a former NBA player. Both (15, 16) found that media framed Amaechi’s announcement as a positive for society and sport, but concluded that locker rooms were not ready for an openly gay athlete. One study (18) found U.S. newspapers and websites framed Jason Collins as a hero after he came out as openly gay. A pair of studies examined and compared media framing of Collins’ and Michael Sam’s coming out, which both occurred within a calendar year of each other. One examination (7) found that newspapers covered both announcements extensively, while the other found media placed greater importance on Sam’s coming out as an NFL draft prospect (25). The authors concluded that although both announcements were celebrated in mainstream media content, homophobic coded language was used to compare gay athletes with heterosexual athletes (25). A study on British media found they largely praised diver Tom Daley for coming out, but continuously labeled him as gay even though Daley actually came out as a bisexual who said he was also attracted to women (21).
LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS
- LGBT = Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender
- NFL = National Football League
- MLB = Major League Baseball
- NBA = National Basketball Association
- NHL = National Hockey League
A textual analysis was conducted to examine media framing of Nassib’s coming out while an established and active NFL player. Textual analyses are a subjective methodology that focuses on uncovering and understanding explicit and implicit meanings within content (32). All byline articles mentioning Nassib published in the five most popular sport websites in the United States were saved for potential examination. Only byline articles were included for examination, so that articles produced by wire services like the Associated Press were not examined multiple times. In order, the five most popular U.S.-based sport websites in 2021 via estimated unique monthly visitors were Yahoo! Sports, ESPN Internet, BleacherReport, CBSSports, and Sports Illustrated, according to U.S. Internet traffic rankings from both Complete and Quantcast (9).
A basic name search was used to find all byline articles that mentioned Nassib and were published in one of the five most popular U.S. sport websites from the day the news broke of Nassib’s coming out (June 21, 2021) through two weeks afterward (July 5, 2021). All five websites were checked twice daily during the two-week period to find articles on Nassib. Working independently, two researchers used open coding in search for dominant themes in how media framed Nassib’s announcement (24). Axial coding was then used to link initial categories with hegemonic masculinity and/or inclusive masculinity theories, which were used as guiding frameworks in interpreting the data.
A total of 21 byline articles and columns that focused on Nassib were published on one of the five websites over the two-week examination period. Only the content that appeared in articles was examined. Photos, graphics, and readers’ comments under articles were not included for examination. Included below are specific examples of content from articles and columns exactly as printed that are organized into four primary themes emerging from the data: (1) Historic news; (2) Nassib goes public to help at-risk youths; (3) Overwhelming public support from NFL administrators, players, and coaches; (4) An observation: While it’s great there’s no overt homophobia, why are most players MIA?
The journalists and columnists who wrote these articles overwhelmingly framed Nassib’s coming out in the United States’ most popular sports league as a huge moment for sport, football, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. “(This) marked a monumental moment for the sport with a long history of stigmatizing homosexuality on the field and in the locker room,” Yahoo! Sports’ Jason Owens wrote shortly after Nassib’s Instagram post (26, para. 2). In another article published by Yahoo! Sports, long-time NFL reporter Mike Freeman compared Nassib’s revelation to the likely many gay NFL players who kept their sexual orientation private throughout their careers:
To fully understand just how brave, how stunning, how historic it is for Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib to come out as gay, the first active NFL player to do so, you have to go back in history. You have to start with the opposite of now. You have to start with fear. With anger. With hate.
All of those things likely forced a legion of NFL players to stay cloaked and hide who they truly were. They couldn’t publicly say they were gay because they might be physically attacked in the locker room. Or cut by the team. Or any number of other things that could have destroyed them or their careers.
So they stayed quiet. They took their secrets with them out of the league and in some cases probably to their deaths. Who knows how many players stayed in the closet throughout NFL history? Dozens? Hundreds? More? (12, para. 1-3).
Similarly, other writers and columnists noted the impact of Nassib’s revelation even though he was not well-known before publicly coming out as gay. “Carl Nassib’s announcement that he is gay changes the world. It took 101 NFL seasons for this to happen. It changes my world, but more importantly the world of young kids, especially athletes, who can finally see an active gay NFL player” (29, para. 27-28).
Nassib Goes Public to Help At-risk Youths
Nassib came out through a video post on his Instagram page with no advanced warning from Nassib himself or any external source. Nassib delineated his reasons for publicly announcing his sexual orientation as reported by ESPN:
What’s up people? I’m at my house here in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I just want to take a quick moment to say that 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. I really have the best life, I’ve got the best family, friends and job a guy could ask for.
I’m a pretty private person so I hope you guys know that I’m really not doing this for attention. I just think that representation and visibility are so important. I actually hope that like one day, videos like this and the whole coming-out process are just not necessary. But until then, I’m going to do my best and do my part to cultivate a culture that’s accepting, that’s compassionate and I’m going to start by donating $100,000 to the Trevor Project (15, para. 3-4).
The Trevor Project is a non-profit charity that provides crisis and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning young adults. On the same day of Nassib’s coming out, his college head coach, James Franklin at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), used social media to congratulate Nassib and to pledge $10,000 to the Trevor Project. “I was proud of Carl when he led the nation in sacks, but I’m even more proud of him now,” Franklin tweeted on the day of Nassib’s announcement (26, para. 21). The emphasis on the Trevor Project in Nassib’s post was heavily emphasized by media reporting on his coming out. That was in contrast to the coming out of John Amaechi, Jason Collins, and Michael Sam, each of who faced criticisms that they did so to capitalize on the fame and attention that would follow their public announcements, which in Amaechi’s case, coincided with the release of his autobiography (18, 25). None of the articles examined in this research, however, delved into Nassib’s endorsement potential as an openly gay athlete or speculated on ulterior motives for his announcement. Instead, much of the focus of these articles was on the Trevor Project, and the impact and influence of Nassib’s public revelation.
It matters a lot because there are still too many people who don’t feel professionally or personally secure enough to make the statement that Nassib did. Not just in the NFL, but in every walk of life. Some of those are teenagers who, as Nassib, 28, noted in his social media posts, are five times more likely to commit suicide as they struggle with the issue.
If the fact an active NFL player can come out — at last — helps just one of those kids, or the many more who struggle in other ways to live their truth, then Carl Nassib’s impact on the world is far greater than chasing quarterbacks around the AFC West (37, para. 4-5).
Overwhelming Public Support from NFL Administrators, Players, and Coaches
Unlike when Amaechi came out, there were no negative comments sourced to a current or former player, coach, or administrator from any sport in any of these articles on Nassib in the two weeks following his announcement. Multiple articles focused on the wide-ranging praise Nassib received, with many of these articles embedding social media posts from sports figures expressing public support for Nassib’s coming out. Support from the NFL league office was prominent in media framing of Nassib. “Not long after his announcement, the NFL expressed its support of Nassib on Twitter with its shield icon emblazoned in the rainbow colors of Pride Month” (26, para. 3). One Bleacher Report article was titled, “Raiders Legend Bo Jackson ‘Proud’ of Carl Nassib for Coming Out as Gay” (27). Some of the more well-known individuals quoted in these articles for their public support of Nassib included tennis legend and women’s sports pioneer Billie Jean King and NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon. The most cited sources in these articles, however, were from those in the NFL higher-ranks, including official statements of support from the Raiders organization, other franchises, the NFL Players Association, and especially from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell who an article published in Sports Illustrated noted “used to beat up kids who teased his gay brother” and has been an LGBT “ally for decades” (20, para. 19). The NFL’s support for Nassib, however, went well beyond simple statements or social media posts on the day of his Instagram post.
A week after Nassib’s announcement, the NFL released an official support video that proclaimed, “Football is gay. Football is lesbian. Football is beautiful. Football is queer. Football is life. Football is exciting. Football is culture. Football is transgender. Football is heart. Football is power. Football is tough. Football is bisexual. Football is strong. Football is freedom. Football is American. Football is accepting. Football is everything. Football is for everyone.” (26, para. 3-5)
An Observation: It’s Great There’s No Overt Homophobia, but Why Are Most Players MIA?
With only three exceptions, all articles under this theme addressing a lack of overt homophobia focused entirely on the positives of Nassib coming out, with many noting the public support he received afterward from the NFL. In writing for Yahoo! Sports, Owens reinforced this media framing of public acceptance, while indirectly noting homophobia in American football:
The NFL has obviously had gay players before Nassib. But none prior publicly challenged the anti-gay sentiment that exists in locker rooms and sports culture by coming out while they’re still playing. Nassib’s announcement didn’t come without risk.
He was immediately met with support from the Raiders, the NFL, the NFLPA and some players around the league. A week later, the NFL continues to formally embrace Nassib’s message with its own message of acceptance and representation (26, para. 8-9).
Veteran NFL reporter Freeman also indirectly noted he believed that homophobia still exists to some extent in NFL locker rooms. “What Nassib has done is help make being gay in the NFL less something to fear” (12, para. 9). However, there was only one article from this data collection that was negative in its overall framing. The day after Nassib’s public revelation, Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina wrote a column titled, “Star NFL Players’ Lack of Public Support for Carl Nassib Was Disappointing” (32).
…just tweeting to get likes and retweets isn’t exactly productive, but here, public support for Nassib from star players is important because a lack of support from peers is what could deter future athletes from coming out.
It’s great to see fans, media and former players heap praise on Nassib, but it’s Nassib’s teammates and peers who carry the most weight in making him feel comfortable and accepted.
When it comes to current stars in the NFL, there weren’t many who publicly supported Nassib on Monday.
I saw tweets from J.J. Watt and Saquon Barkley, but that was about it. (33, para. 5-8).
Whereas league and team officials and their social media accounts were supportive of Nassib coming out, Traina correctly noted that Barkley, a college teammate of Nassib’s at Penn State, and star defensive end J.J. Watt, who has been involved in philanthropic and social causes throughout his career, were the only well-known NFL players to publicly support Nassib after his announcement. “It would’ve been nice if more current players, especially big-name players, would’ve either acknowledged Nassib’s courage or praised Nassib for trying to help young LGTBQ people,” (33, para.19).
Articles and columns in the five most popular U.S. sport websites framed Nassib’s coming out gay as an active NFL player as positive news. First, this phenomenon was noted as a historic moment for football and American sports as a whole. Critics of LGBT individuals who come out publicly often decry that they do not care. But mass media framed Nassib coming out as an active, NFL player as both historically newsworthy and a positive for society, which will influence many opinions based on framing theory (14). Second, many journalists noted that Nassib came out to support at-risk LGBT youth through his monetary donation to the Trevor Project; and that his public self-outing brought needed attention to the difficulties and challenges faced by LGBT youth. This was important for journalists to emphasize—and they did so in multiple articles—because scholarships showed that earlier gay athletes who came out had their motives for doing so indirectly questioned by some, particularly Amaechi whose public revelation coincided with the release of his autobiography (17). By Nassib emphasizing the rationale for his announcement on the Trevor Project and media also focusing on the connection between Nassib and the organization, no such criticisms were found in the examined articles.
These articles also focused on the near-universal public support of Nassib coming out from all sports organizations and individuals who were quoted, and especially from NFL officials such as commissioner Goodell. However, several writers noted that American football, in general, is a sport that still has homophobia within its ranks. One columnist called out NFL stars for their apparent silence on Nassib’s coming out since only two marquee players had used their social media platforms to support Nassib (33). This minimal reaction supports recent scholarship finding that roughly a third of players on a major college football roster were uncomfortable with gay men, even though the team identified in that study was located in the more gay-friendly West coast of the United States (4). Accordingly, there undoubtedly remain NFL players who disapprove of Nassib’s sexual orientation. In this heightened era of political correctness and increasingly overall societal acceptance of gays and lesbians, however, current NFL athletes and their agents did not want to be framed as homophobic. Accordingly, they may have not commented for fear of public backlash, particularly on online sites and via social media (17, 25).
However, results from this research cannot be generalized to all media coverage and framing of openly gay athletes. Only articles published in five outlets over a two-week period following Nassib’s announcement were examined. Moreover, media framing of only one athlete was examined, and that athlete was not a household name. Finally, textual analyses are an interpretative and highly subjective means of analysis.
Although results of this study cannot be generalized because content from only five websites was examined, the overall media framing of Nassib’s coming out must be viewed as a positive for those who support LGBT. Media were overwhelmingly supportive in framing Nassib’s coming out and his intentions for doing so were portrayed as being altruistic through his donation and involvement with the Trevor Project, with that philanthropic organization also receiving free media mentions that lead to enhanced notoriety. Additionally—unlike past athletes who came out, such as Amaechi and Sam (17, 25)—there were no criticisms levied by current or even former athletes in that sport or from any known athletes from any sport in any of the examined articles. As Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina noted, though, the fact that so few current NFL players publicly offered support for Nassib on social media likely shows that there is still some level of discomfort with gay men in football by at least some players, although all have been trained and learned not to publicly say anything that could be construed as homophobic or even insensitive to LGBT.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
Historically, sport administrators and coaches expressed concern about how an openly gay male athlete in their locker room would be accepted by teammates, opponents, and fans, using these perceived fears as a rationale for gay athletes to stay in the closet (17, 21). However, the framing of these articles and the complete lack of negative comments or actions from anyone in football demonstrates that such fears are largely antiquated, although there likely remains a silenced group of players who may not be as comfortable expressing their views (4). The NFL, like most other aspects of Western society, is seemingly more ready for and accepting of openly gay athletes.
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