Following three seasons with the NFL, one with the Dallas Cowboys and two with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ryan Russell was one his way toward establishing a strong NFL career until he suffered a major shoulder injury that made him miss the entire 2018 season. However, that wasn’t completely the end of his journey and Russell has confidence in his skills and character as an athlete will be a positive contribution to any team that might sign him.
With his prospects looking up, Russell had several meetings with NFL team executives about the possibility of being signed onto another team and picking his career back up. However, Russell did not want to move forward unless he could include an important part of his character. In his own words, shared with ESPN…
“But for all the encouraging feelings about the visit, I do have one strong regret that has inspired me to make a promise to myself: This is the last time I will ever interview for a job as anything other than my full self. Out of love, admiration and respect, I want the next team to sign me valuing me for what I do and knowing who I truly am.
Have I lied to teammates, coaches, trainers, front-office executives and fans about who I am? Not exactly. But withholding information is a form of deceit. And I want the next part of my career — and life — steeped in trust and honesty. During the season you spend more time with your team than with your own family; truth and honesty are the cornerstones of a winning culture. My truth is that I’m 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. 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.
Those two objectives shouldn’t be in conflict. But judging from the fact that there isn’t a single openly LGBTQ player in the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball or the NHL, brings me pause. I want to change that — for me, for other athletes who share these common goals, and for the generations of LGBTQ athletes who will come next.”
In his self-written essay published on ESPN+, Russell opens up about his sexual orientation, major struggles and conflicts growing up, his love for football and experiences in the NFL. In a particular story during his first NFL season, he shared a story about being found out by a well-known blogger…
“After my first season, a well-known blogger messaged me. He had come across an Instagram story of a man I was dating that included a quick snippet of me in the background. Even though the man and I were never in a post together, the dates, times and similar locations were enough evidence for the blogger to deduce that we were an item. The blogger could have revealed I was in a gay relationship. My professional world and personal world were colliding with me caught in the cataclysm. I panicked, then wrote back, reminding him that there were implications about his actions he didn’t fully understand. If the blogger outed me, I was sure that would kill my career, one that was supporting not just me, but my mother and grandfather. He’d eradicate a childhood dream that was the product of years of work and sacrifice.
After hearing me out, know what that blogger told me? That he would grant me this favor, but that I should be more careful.
Let that sink into your brain: Even though openly LGBTQ people are thriving in every area of public life — politics, entertainment, the top corporations in America — they are so invisible in pro sports that a gossip blogger is doing a favor for a bisexual football player by not disclosing that he happens to date men. Nobody should need a favor to live honestly. In nobody’s worlds should being careful mean not being yourself. The career you choose shouldn’t dictate the parts of yourself that you embrace.”
Russell’s last season with the NFL was his best season, and yet it was also his worse. Having to contend with his shoulder injury, he was not signed on for another season with Tampa Bay. In addition, he faced a lot of issues in his personal life including losing a best friend to cancer and battling severe depression. However, he found the strength and resilience he needed to keep moving forward. He chose to no longer let his fear of being outed control him but instead took control. Taking up other tasks, and feeling free and open to be himself, Russell reports that this past year has been his most fulfilling.
His story is already creating a big impact on the community, and Russell hopes that he can show that you can pursue your dreams without having to hide who you are.
“That brings me to today, and the biggest challenge yet: Can I bring these two worlds together? Can I take all the progress in my personal life over the 12 months and combine it with the professional success that I experienced the previous year? Can I unify my separate professional and personal lives into a single one?
I don’t believe this is a big ask in 2019. I can tell you from experience that as long as a teammate contributes to success on the field and in the locker room, NFL players aren’t concerned about who their defensive linemen date. I’ve never been suspended or a distraction for my conduct off the field. The NFL is a multibillion-dollar entertainment entity with the power to create working conditions that allow LGBTQ people to perform their jobs like everyone else. NFL teams who worry about the “distractions” that would come with additional media coverage have skilled PR professionals who understand that there are bigger issues on Sunday afternoon than a quarterback being asked, “What’s it like having a bisexual teammate?”
There are a lot of problems in the world, and a lot of issues facing the NFL. And I can say with confidence that LGBTQ players having the comfort to be themselves, date who they want, share parts of their life with friends and teammates will not rank among those issues.“
Finding inspiration from the Gay and Bisexual NFL pioneers before him, Russell hopes to take the next step for his community and for himself.
By Dirk Smith