When Will the NFL Loosen Its Grip on Exclusion?

When Will the NFL Loosen Its Grip on Exclusion?

By Alan Grant


Because the league still only opens doors to players who fit its narrative.

By Alan Grant

Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, while sauntering through a Tampa airport, was approached by a baggage handler who wanted to know what it took to make it to the league.

Sapp’s answer: “All you need is one person to like you.”

That this exchange took place near baggage claim is fitting, as the number of players who pass through NFL locker rooms — even in one season — mimics the transport of an international terminal.

The term locker room is used in all kinds of contexts: a locker room “presence,” a locker room “leader” and, of course, the dreaded locker room “cancer” (also known as locker room “distraction”).

The immediacy of who you are — and where you fit in — certainly applies to Ryan Russell.

All of this makes drama-free anonymity — another guy in the locker room — a valued status in the NFL. That’s all Michael Sam wanted to be. Even at Missouri, where he was the most dominant player in the mighty Southeastern Conference (SEC), Sam maintained a comfortable level of anonymity. His teammates knew he was gay; so did his coaches. It didn’t sway their view of him. But after a young reporter threatened to out him, Sam had to reclaim himself.

In the process, Sam apparently gained an admirer: Stan Kroenke, who owned the St. Louis Rams. The Rams selected Sam with the 249th pick in 2014. After Sam had made history as the first openly gay player in NFL history, he went about the business of making an impression as a defensive end on a Rams team that was loaded with defensive ends.

During the preseason, Sam had three sacks and 11 tackles, clearly good enough to make the final 53. But the still-small voice of “difference” echoed throughout the league. There was a national story in which a reporter posed the question of how “comfortable” Sam’s teammates were with him in the shower.


Supposedly there was a time when Jackie Robinson waited until his teammates had left the clubhouse before he would shower. Robinson didn’t want to make anyone “uncomfortable.” But after Ralph Branca convinced him otherwise, Robinson dropped his towel and embraced his station as “just one of the guys.” At least that’s the way it was presented in the movie 42.

Sam seemed destined for that Hollywood ending. His stats were nearly identical to undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks. But when he was dropped and the Rams kept Westbrooks, even with coach Jeff Fisher offering praise for Sam, it was apparent that just having someone in a high place who likes you is not enough.

A short while later, Jerry Jones liked Sam enough to put him on the Cowboys practice squad, but that lasted just seven weeks. Then Sam was gone — retired from football before he was formally introduced as a football player.

It was merely a coincidence that the next year, the very same Dallas Cowboys liked Ryan Russell enough to draft him in the fifth round.

Like Sam, Russell was a defensive end who had the skills to get their attention but not enough to make it past the practice squad. Like Sam, Russell’s sexuality didn’t mesh with the traditional locker room norm. But unlike Sam, Russell kept his sexuality — his bisexuality — to himself.

After being released by the Cowboys, Russell enjoyed fleeting success with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In eight regular-season games, he had a handful of tackles and one sack. The following season was better (he started seven games and had two sacks). But after being released by Tampa, Russell spent the 2018 training camp with Buffalo before being released again.

As of this writing, Russell, 27, is without a team. After some soul searching, he decided he would no longer hide. He insists it wasn’t a strategic statement. In an exclusive conversation with OZY, Russell uses the words team and teammate with great frequency. He makes it clear that he loves to play, that an NFL career is a dream undeterred, but not if it means “compromising who I am in order to do it.”

When asked if his decision to come out can be conflated with the “movement” authored by Colin Kaepernick, Russell bristles. “As for the timing … when you’re ready, you’re ready,” Russell says. He then reminds us about the transient nature of the business: “Things are always moving and changing in this game, aren’t they?’” 

Russell is spot on. Back in August of 2016, many scholars celebrated the 50th anniversary of The Revolt of the Black Athlete, the seminal work about Black athletes who assert their rights as human beings. Amid this anniversary, former 49ers quarterback Kaepernick decided to take a knee. Perhaps it wasn’t so coincidental that Kaepernick’s gesture took place on this golden anniversary.

It was Dr. Harry Edwards, a longtime 49ers adviser and the iconic sociologist who wrote The Revolt of the Black Athlete, who organized the first on-field protest in 1965. A football game between San Jose State and Texas El Paso, the first game of the season, was canceled when the San Jose State team decided not to play until housing conditions for minority students were improved. It marked the first time a sporting event was used as a place of protest.

So when Kaepernick — and the players who followed — gestured for social justice, they merely recycled an energy that had been lying dormant. 

The immediacy of who you are — and where you fit in — certainly applies to Ryan Russell.

Every athlete reconciles his humanity with his profession. Most don’t do it publicly. Russell sees his sexuality as neither the overarching political statement nor an impediment to his employment. Instead, he views it as a personal trait that may give some team executives pause, but with which the guys in the locker room are OK.

When asked if his commitment to be his “full self” means that, like Kaepernick and Sam, he’s prepared to never play again, he’s brusque. “I don’t know if anyone is prepared for that,” he says. “There are guys who play 20 years who may not be prepared to not play.”

Russell would have us see him the way he sees himself, an athletic rush end who can fill in at a moment’s notice. To that extent, he does not consider himself an NFL “outsider.” “No, I’m just like any other journeyman player,” he clarifies.

For the anonymous journeyman, opportunity comes with another player’s contract dispute or an injury. And for the not-so-anonymous journeyman — guys like Kaepernick, Sam and Russell?

Just takes one person to decide that.

Stanford alum Alan Grant is a retired NFL defensive back and former writer for ESPN The Magazine who authored the book Return to Glory.