By NPR Staff

When Nashville Predators prospect Luke Prokop came out last month, it was the first time an active player under contract to an NHL team had ever publicly acknowledged they were gay.

Overnight, Prokop’s announcement doubled the number of out gay athletes currently playing in the country’s four major men’s sports — football, basketball, baseball and hockey. Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib also came out last month.

The back-to-back announcements were met with an outpouring of support from fellow players, teams, league officials and fans.

They also highlighted the dearth of openly gay players in the hypermasculine world of U.S. men’s professional sports, often dubbed “the last closet” for its lack of LGBTQ representation. Though many retired former players have come out, it is more unusual for male professional athletes to say they are gay while still playing.

“This is an example of the broader society changing much quicker than the institution of sport or the cultures of sport have done,” said Cheryl Cooky, a professor of American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Purdue University.

Carl Nassib defensive lineman with the Las Vegas Raiders came out in a video shared on his Instagram page. His team published a statement supporting for him, marking what many hope to be a shift toward more acceptance and inclusiveness in not only the National Football League, but in the wider world of professional sports.

The easy-going way Nassib made the historic announcement mattered, Jim Buzinski, a co-founder of the sports news site Outsports told NPR. “There wasn’t a coordinated media campaign. He just looked like he was in his backyard recording, you know, a video for his friends. And so, I thought that that really gave it really power.”

Nassib wasn’t the first NFL athlete to come out, but he was the first to do it as an active player, and he has gotten support in a way that Michael Sam and others didn’t when they were similarly candid.

Michael Sam became a trailblazer as the first openly gay athlete to be drafted by the NFL in 2014. He congratulated Nassib on Twitter and thanked him for “owning [his] truth” and also donating $100,000 to The Trevor Project, supporting LGBTQ youth.

Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2014 and was the 249th of 256 players who made the cut. As is the custom, Sam’s reaction to the news was filmed, and the video shows a tearful Sam sharing a kiss and a hug with his boyfriend, clearly overcome with emotion.

But as is also the norm, being a trailblazer isn’t easy; Sam received backlash for the moment, not just from the typical rabble-rousers who take to the internet to spew hate, but from a fellow football player too. Don Jones, then a safety for the Miami Dolphins, tweeted “horrible” after Sam was drafted and it landed him a fine, suspension from team activities, and mandatory sensitivity training, according to USA Today.

Sam had only come out just a few months before the draft, a move that carries even greater weight when you consider that it’s not unusual for players to be questioned — and, presumably, judged — harshly during the NFL Combine. While some questions could be considered harmless (“McDonald’s or Burger King?” one athlete was reportedly asked), more than one player has reported being asked inappropriate questions about their sexuality. In 2013, teams were apparently open about wanting to know Manti Te’o’s sexual orientation before possibly drafting him, according to one insider.

It’s a culture that undoubtedly lends itself to silence, lest any divergence from heteronormativity be used to halt your career before it even starts. But Sam, as he explained during an early interview, wanted to be a beacon of hope.

“I just feel like because I came out, I was the first one to do it, I could be a beacon for other athletes who may be gay or maybe not. I think I can be a beacon for those people, a light, like ‘I can be comfortable in my own skin and be like Michael Sam,’ ” he said, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Sam was applauded for his bravery by the likes of then-President Barack Obama, but the social support did not translate into long-term professional success. While he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, he did not make the final cut.

Whether his decision to come out effected his future on the field is hard to say definitively; some theorized that his sexuality led to him being hyper-scrutinized, while others, like the Rams coach, attributed his fate squarely to his performance. But that’s something that those who have been the “only” in a sea of “many” can easily relate to. Implicit bias can hide behind plausible deniability, leaving the person with the haunting question of “is it because?”

Sam, at least, made it clear where he stood: that he that he should have made the team and claimed the coach was “vague” when cutting him — choosing over him players that he “outperformed,” Sam said, according to CBS Sports.

After the Rams, Sam joined the Dallas Cowboys practice squad for a little over a month but did not make the roster. He found a temporary home shortly thereafter when he signed a two-year contract with the Montreal Alouettes in 2015 and became the first openly gay football player to play in the Canadian Football League. He retired from the game altogether a few months later out of concern for his mental health, he said in a Twitter announcement.

But while Sam’s pro career may have been short, his place in history is cemented. After being drafted, Cyd Zeigler, editor and a co-founder of Outsports, described Sam as someone who has “shattered stereotypes and broken the pink ceiling” — no small feat at all.

Before Sam and Nassib, there was David Kopay, who had a lucrative football career; he played for five different teams starting in 1964 before retiring in 1972. He came out a few years later, in 1975, and shared his story via a bestselling autobiography, The David Kopay Story.

What Kopay did was largely unheard of at the time. For context, consider this: Stonewall had happened only a few years earlier, during the summer of 1969. The board of the American Psychiatric Association had only voted to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. And discriminating due to sexuality was still legal; Wisconsin, the first state to outlaw it, would not do so until 1982.

After coming out, Kopay was blacklisted and had no choice but to leave the world of football behind, instead going to work with his family’s linoleum business, according to a 1998 ESPN article. But he was, by all accounts, a pioneer, with Outsports describing him in 2019 as “the most significant gay athlete in modern history.”

During an interview with NPR in 2005, Kopay spoke on the difficulties of being a gay man in the world of football.

“Being gay in individual sports is one thing but being gay in team sports is a whole ‘nother, because … the whole thing is, you kind of lose your identity in the team,” he said. “That’s why a lot of people say, `Well, gay people wouldn’t fit in,’ because their identity is so different.'”

Other gay football players have similarly spoken out, remarking on the struggles of being closeted in such a hyper-masculine world. Ryan O’Callaghan, who played for the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, came out in 2017 after retirement. Before coming out, he told OUT, his sexuality was “all [he] would think about” and he was terrified of being outed. He struggled with addiction and contemplated suicide, while most, presumably, didn’t suspect any internal turmoil.

“No one is going to assume the big football player is gay,” he told the magazine. “It’s why a football team is such a good place to hide.”

Speaking to ESPN in 1998, Kopay made similar remarks, telling the network that being a “very aggressive, tough ballplayer” made it easier to gain his teammate’s respect and “hide [his] true sexual identity.”

There are key differences in the cultures of men’s and women’s athletics

While few active players in the major men’s sports leagues have come out, many female professional athletes have said publicly that they’re gay, from U.S. soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe to tennis legend Billie Jean King. That points to a key difference between the cultures of men’s and women’s athletics.

For women, historically participating in sport has meant challenging gendered expectations and gendered norms and behaviors,” she told NPR. “Whereas for men, participating in sport is demonstrating and reaffirming and embodying all of those characteristics we expect of men.

Whether that will change after Nassib’s, and Prokop’s announcements is still unclear, in the overwhelmingly masculine culture of the four major men’s sports such that many more athletes will come out publicly.

Is a better future on the horizon?

When asked in 1998 if he thought that there would come a time when it would be easier for athletes to come out, Kopay simply remarked, “Yes, I do,” and pointed to the story of a New Zealand rugby player — possibly Ian Roberts, who was the first in his sport to come out publicly.

“It can happen, if it’s already happened to a major, major star,” he said. “I used to think it was going to happen fairly soon, back when I wrote my book, but now I don’t think it’s going to happen for another generation. But I do think it will happen eventually.”

“Eventually,” it appears, just may be now