NFL free agent Ryan Russell has a message for teams that say they’re pro-LGBTQ: “call me.”
The defensive end publicly came out as bisexual last August and he’s still waiting for his call. In a recent essay for Out Magazine, Russell challenges teams that promote LGBTQ causes in press releases to bring an actual LGBTQ player into their locker room.
Russell appeared in the NFL’s National Coming Out Day video, alongside current stars such as Rob Gronkowski and DeAndre Hopkins, as well as former out players, including Wade Davis and Ryan O’Callaghan. The video’s message is clear: the NFL is a welcoming place. But this is a case where actions speak louder than words.
“I want to see a league that I love, that I believe in, and am blessed to be part of take that next step, and that next step is action,” Russell told me on this week’s edition of “The Sports Kiki” podcast. “The excuse of, ‘there just aren’t any out athletes,’ you can’t use that excuse anymore, because there is. I am out. I am an athlete. I am 28 and at the height of my athletic career; Covid is happening and a lot of players are opting out; injuries are happening; there was no preseason. Give me a call. There’s an opportunity here for you to put your money where your mouth is, so to speak.”
The Dallas Cowboys selected Russell in the fifth-round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He played for three seasons, experiencing his most success with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he recorded two sacks in seven games during the 2017 campaign.
Russell signed with the Buffalo Bills in 2018, but was released after suffering a shoulder injury. He moved out to Los Angeles and to pursue a career in the arts. Last year, Russell published his own collection of poems, “Prison or Passion.”
Russell isn’t just sitting at home waiting for an NFL team to call. He’s using his platform to promote visibility, even starting his own popular YouTube channel with his boyfriend, “Corey & Russ.”
The two are unapologetically affectionate in their videos. A recent offering dubbed the “Couples Chapstick Challenge” features them smooching each other in an effort to find the mystery flavor. (Russell, for the record, says he did not find any of the flavors particularly tasty.)
Russell says it would’ve been unimaginable even two years ago for him to be this open. He started dating men in 2015, but kept that side of his life private until last summer. Until then, he estimates less than a handful of people knew.
“I feel like within my adult life I’ve lived five different lives already,” Russell said. “It’s just so different, and in each life that I’ve lived in this weird little analogy where apparently I’m dying and being reborn, I feel more and more like myself.”
Though Russell says he always felt comfortable in football locker rooms, he compartmentalized his sexuality.
“Being a young Black bisexual man, and just being a Black man in general, you learn to compartmentalize when you walk into certain spaces — especially since a lot of spaces you find yourself being in the minority,” he said. “A lot of spaces were created by people who do not look like you, did not have your best interests at heart.”
Obviously, Russell is no longer compartmentalizing his sexuality. He said NFL players and officials have reached out to express support in the aftermath of his critical Out Magazine piece.
But again: there’s a difference between saying and acting. Russell doesn’t spend time speculating whether his sexuality is the reason he’s unsigned, because frankly, it’s wasted energy.
“There could be a list of 1,000 excuses,” he said. “I really don’t have time for it. At the end of the day, I am here to help a team win. I’m here to make a team better. Those are the only things that should matter within the realm of football.”
With U.S. support for same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights reaching record highs, it’s outdated to suggest an openly gay or bisexual player would negatively impact business. Conversely, it would be a powerful statement for a team to make, and probably open up an array of opportunities.
It’s getting increasing difficult for owners to hide behind the shield of unspecified business concerns. The San Francisco 49ers employ Kate Sowers as an assistant coach, and reached the Super Bowl last season.
“I think we have dispelled that,” Russell said. “That was also an excuse made out of literally no examples, proof, evidence or past circumstance. I think the league, teams, ownership, and whoever it may be, they’re running out of reasons other than kind of flat-out you don’t want it. You’re really running out of places to hide.”
Click here to check out this week’s edition of “The Sports Kiki” podcast. You can also subscribe to the show on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.