Bi Visibility Day: Ryan Russell on coming out, navigating the NFL, and more
In an exclusive interview, the former Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end discusses being an LGBTQ+ role model in sports, and his NFL ambitions
Last Updated: 23/09/20 10:10pm
Ryan Russell made headlines around the world last year when he publicly shared his story of being an NFL player who is bisexual, having been drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 2015 before then appearing regularly as a defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
To mark Bi Visibility Day on Wednesday, Russell sat down for an exclusive Q&A conversation with Sky Sports' Jon Holmes and members of Sky's LGBT+ and Multiculture network groups, giving a personal and emotional insight into his journey.
With so few athletes in professional men's team sports who are gay or bi having ever come out publicly, Russell's visibility has inspired people worldwide from across the LGBTQ+ and allies community, and he received the Gay Times' Honour for Sporting Hero in the UK in 2019. He is also a published poet and writer.
Currently a free agent, the 28-year-old is also the only active male athlete in the major American professional sports leagues to openly identify as LGBTQ+.
JH: Happy Bi Visibility Day, Russ! Since coming out publicly just over a year ago, what have been the high points of that journey for you?
RR: There have been so many. You hear the cliched phrase that 'life just gets better' after coming out, but it's really true. All of my relationships have just become more enriched and deeper. When you allow that vulnerability and allow people to see you and to let them in, the connections just become more powerful and profound. I've enjoyed so much happiness in every area of my life.
In terms of my career in training and football, there's no longer this big looming secret. I can just be myself, because everyone knows - I don't hear people whispering and think 'are they talking about me? Do they know?' All of these things take up mental space when really, especially in professional sports, you need all the mental capacity you can for training and preparing to be the best at your job. So that weight has been lifted.
I think the greatest high point after coming out has been the lives of the people that I've touched, such as for young queer athletes who are contemplating whether sports is for them, and who are maybe not seeing themselves on that professional level. Now they can see me, someone who's not only pursuing a professional career but has had success professionally, is claiming their truth, and is accepting themselves and advocating for people like them.
What's been more challenging?
Just putting pressure on myself to be an example, or to be an activist or an advocate - this idea of a person. All the lives that I've touched, and all of the joy that I've had, has just been from me being honest, courageous, and loving myself. So any lows would be me just having to remind myself of that daily - telling myself, 'if you just stay down this path, you'll help people, you'll help yourself and you'll live the fulfilling life that you've always wanted to live'. But other than that, the lows... I don't really see them.
At the moment, you're hoping to get back into the NFL. How have those conversations been going? Are you encouraged by what you're hearing from teams?
Definitely. I suffered a major injury in 2018 - I tore my shoulder. It was a significant surgery that I had, and the Buccaneers let me go at that time because they didn't know what my health would be like moving forward. Also in that year, I lost my best friend to stage 4 cancer, so 2018 into 2019 was very hard for me. That's one of the things that led to me coming out because I had to find happiness outside of what I did for a career - outside of my love for football - and without one of my best friends, who really had filled that void for me and was also the first person I ever came out to.
It allowed me to introspect and take care of myself - that reminder of, 'hey, you're going to wake up with yourself, go to sleep with yourself, so you need to learn how to be happy when it's just you'. I found that that couldn't happen for me without coming out.
Of course, my shoulder heals, and in that process - though I'm still grieving for my best friend - the grief and the depression subside and get more manageable every day.
As for the conversations that we're having now with teams, my shoulder is no longer in question - I'm completely healthy. I wake up at 5am every day and train for a few hours. I also have one of the greatest sports agents in the game in Drew Rosenhaus, who's having these conversations with me.
Sadly with Covid and everything going on with that, there are some players opting out. Then there's just the nature of the game and injuries. So we're very optimistic that we'll be getting a call here soon. Workouts and conversations are starting. This season will definitely be my season!
That's encouraging to hear. You spoke about mental health and how different events in your life coalesced and had a big impact on you. What have you learned about how mental wellbeing impacts on athletic performance, through your own experiences?
The same way that it makes sense for athletes to train their body and make sure that they take care of their nutrition, it's just as if not more important to take care of your mental state.
For athletes, it's often presented in the way of mental repetition, telling you 'make sure that you're using visualisation' - these are the kinds of tools that your coaches will teach you to enhance your performance. But it also goes into your emotional well-being - dealing with depression, anxiety, and things that affect young men for whom there's this stereotypical idea of an athlete or a jock.
You don't hear a lot of conversations about them in locker rooms, but they can take an even bigger toll on you because they're not being talked about - it's not normalised. You'll know if it's hard to wake up in the morning, to stay focused, to stay in the moment or whatever it is - with these very dark thoughts or this cloud, your performance is going to suffer, there's no way around it.
It's not just on the field, but off the field too - that's the vicious cycle. If you're feeling bad, you play bad, and then you feel bad about how you played, and it just goes on and on. So I think having these conversations and having resource in the locker room is something the NFL and a lot of colleges are doing better on. It's not just having a therapist on staff but making sure that players actually see their therapist and check in.
Whether it's medication or meditation, whatever your avenue may be, just make sure that in the same way you have a game plan for that week, you have a mental wellness plan also in place. That's something sports is definitely becoming more aware of. We've had major athletes in the NBA like Kevin Love talk about it on that kind of platform, so I'm excited to see the progress in sports.
I encourage the sport to be more inclusive, to be more loving and take a stand for social justice.
You chose to come out via a personal essay, and then your story went global - we reported it on Sky Sports, for example. How was that process for you, and would you recommend it to another athlete who's maybe contemplating a similar course?
For anyone who's contemplating coming out, if you're in a position where doing that will not jeopardise your safety or the safety of those around you, I strongly encourage you to get to a place where you can come out.
For a lot of people, you're going to be worried about your career, your family and friends and how they think, but trust me when I say that happiness and joy and even that success that you're looking for is on the other end of coming out. You can't obtain this while in the closet and think that that's going to fill the void of you not accepting your true self and not being proud enough.
Once you realise that - that coming out is kind of your only option, in order to be happy and to get all the things that you want - I strongly encourage everyone to make that journey, and get to a place where you can. Whether it's working with a therapist, talking to friends and family, your boss, your team-mates, it's about loving yourself and getting to that point where you choose yourself over all these other things.
That's the greatest thing that I've ever done in my life. Regardless of being drafted in the NFL, having success and winning games, coming out was the best decision I ever made in my life, hands down. And it made all the other decisions in my life thereafter even greater. So I'd definitely encourage all athletes and just all people who are LGBTQ+ and who are in a position to come out, to be proud of who you are and to love who you are.
It's still somewhat rare for people to come out as bi, particularly athletes. At this time of year, we raise awareness of that specific journey. How was that for you?
Coming out for everyone is difficult in their own way, but coming out as bi was very tricky. Growing up, bisexuality wasn't really an option. I'd never really heard about it being a true identity, it was more like, 'oh, you're just kind of transitioning from straight to gay'. Or it was said in a sense of, 'you're just ashamed to say you're gay, you're saying you're bisexual because you think this is more masculine', or whatever the public perception is.
So there were times when I was trying to figure out my identity, and it was being pushed aside. At that point, you're very susceptible to people saying, 'oh no, that's not a thing'. So you think, 'OK, what else then?' And you try to move on.
But I kept coming back to bisexuality - through relationships, through personal experiences, and self reflection. I was 27 when I came out - I'd realised that this is who I am. Regardless of how other people feel about bisexuality, their comfortability or perception of it, this is my truth.
There are people all over that are being invalidated in the same way that I was. It's important for them to have someone stand up and say, 'I am bisexual, and this is a valid identification, and a valid place to be.' It was very unspoken also in the sports world.
Bisexuality has its unique challenges but I want to allow people to realise that they are who they are, how they feel and who they love. Don't let anyone else define your truth.
Like you, Ryan O'Callaghan is one of the few NFL players to have come out as LGBTQ+. When Sky Sports spoke to him last year, he said he wasn't actually a big NFL fan himself. Is that different for you?
I love Ryan O'Callaghan - we've had multiple conversations after I came out. I was shocked when he said he wasn't a huge NFL fan, and when he said he used football as a way to hide his queerness. Because he was amazing, he played for so long, for so many good teams!
I have such a love for football. For someone to play at that high level for so long, I couldn't fathom it. Even now, not actively playing, I try to watch as many games as I can. I try to look at all the scores.
Football has given me so much in my life. I never really felt like I had to use football to hide, so I know I have a different relationship with football than Ryan does. It gave me a scholarship to a great university in Purdue, it allowed me to put food on the table and take care of my mom, my grandad and my family. For a young kid growing up, football was a way for me to have brothers, father figures, and mentors. It just gave me so much. So I love the sport - not just the action that happens on Sundays, everything that goes into it.
I also encourage the sport to be more inclusive, to be more loving and take a stand for social justice. Because I know what football can do for families and for people, and I see the power that it has.
On that point, how do you feel the NFL is handling the Black Lives Matter message, in comparison to other sports?
I will always challenge the NFL to do more, because I know they can - and this is no exception. I definitely would love to see the NFL back their players more. It's something the NBA and really the WNBA have been amazing at. In my opinion, if you want to see a major sports league set an example when it comes to social justice, just look at the WNBA because they've been doing it for so long, at such a high level, with so many of their athletes.
The NBA is following suit of their sister league, and doing the same thing, and I love the support that the league gives their players. I think the NFL is starting to do that now, with their Inspire Change movement, putting 'End Racism' messages in the endzone, and allowing their players to talk more with the support of the NFL.
In 2016 when Colin Kaepernick kneeled, it was perceived as this battle between the NFL and the players. I love that now they are more in sync and working together.
I know the NFL has initiatives to put money into black-owned businesses, to help education of police officers and their community, and be that bridge - they're doing a lot of great things behind the scenes, but I encourage them to do more.
A great place to get to would be not just a formal apology to Kaepernick but allowing a great player back into the league in some capacity, just to show that they are truly on the side of players of colour, and of social justice. They're going in the right direction, but I think they can do more.
During Pride season, you spoke on a panel discussion hosted by the NFL and shared online. How significant was that, and what more can the NFL do to be more LGBTQ+ inclusive?
We'd have never seen that panel a few years ago. For me, the messages that are most powerful for me especially in organisations like the NFL are those that don't come from the top down or the bottom up, but come from both sides - whether it be having your current players say 'we accept all families, we accept all people', or having your legends and Hall of Famers come back and speak on this topic and show their allyship. Owners, coaches, everyone - this needs to be a united front. You don't have to be an LGBTQ+ person - you can be a family member, or an ally, because we're your family, and your team-mates.
Something as simple as a Super Bowl commercial where one of the families have two dads or have two moms, or having non-binary people involved in your commercials. There's so much messaging that goes into football, like the little blurbs on the Jumbotrons, in between time outs and at half-time - have some of those be LGBTQ+ inclusive.
Show representation in your online marketing. If you have people modelling your shirts, have two of them be men holding hands. Something as small as that goes a long way. Have a Pride game! I think that's something San Francisco has been talking about, but it needs to be League wide.
There are so many people within the NFL who are smart and creative so I know they can come up with something! But it needs to be from everyone.
We'll wrap up with some football questions! Who's your team?
I'm from Dallas, so I'll always have love for the Cowboys. I grew up watching them. I was drafted to the Cowboys in 2015, so that's an extra layer of love. It's my hometown team and they chose to believe in me and make my dream come true.
But being a free agent, you're in a unique position where you could become a fan of any team, at any moment, whoever gives you that call. So you definitely don't bad mouth other teams! But do I watch Dallas games a little more closely? Yes. Do I hope they win and have success? Yes. There are also still friends that I have on that team from when I was drafted and when I played with them, so I always want them to do well.
What did you make of the Cowboys' incredible comeback win over the Falcons last weekend?
It was bittersweet for me, because one of my friends that I played with at Purdue for a long time, Ricardo Allen, is a safety for the Falcons. And when he went down, that's when the Cowboys came back. I was like, ugh - I wanted my friend to be OK and healthy and playing, but then the Cowboys win. Football is just wild!
And what do you make of the Bucs this season?
The NFC South is one of the toughest divisions, especially now when you have maybe the best quarterback ever in Tom Brady, and you have Drew Brees (New Orleans) who's also one of the greats of all time in there. The Panthers defense is always a force to be reckoned with too. That whole division, top down - the Falcons with Julio Jones and Matt Ryan - it's tough, I'm really excited to see what everyone's going to do.
Which current defensive ends in the NFL do you admire?
Wow, there's so many good ones. The first person that comes to mind is Khalil Mack out of Chicago. He's fast, he's strong - we have similar measurables. He went to University of Buffalo, same as my mom, so we have that tie-in. He's a freak of nature, really an amazing player.
Also Ryan Kerrigan, who just broke the Washington sack franchise record. He was at Purdue along with me - he was one of the reasons why I went there. He was a first-round pick, and I was like, 'I want to be like Ryan Kerrigan'! So off the bat, those are the first two guys who come to mind. But there's so much amazing talent out there, and so many players I'm proud to call peers and colleagues.
It's early days still this season but is there any team you've seen so far that you've been really impressed with, and would tip to go all the way?
Obviously being in L.A., we get a lot of Rams coverage. I wasn't huge on the Rams before - of course, Aaron Donald is one of the greatest of all time, in my opinion - but after watching how they play defense and with Jared Goff in the offense continually getting better, even with the loss of Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks, I think they're really special right now. So they're my dark horse.
Everyone's looking at Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City), who has a God-given talent - crazy arm, he can throw it 60 yards down the field, off his back foot, rolling out left. Lamar Jackson (Baltimore) is also such a creative player; then there's Kyler Murray with DeAndre Hopkins (Arizona), who just broke a franchise record for most receptions - and there are so many young amazing black quarterbacks coming up right now that I'm excited to see.
I just want to see good football! But those four teams - the Rams, the Chiefs, the Ravens, the Cardinals - if their games are on, I'm watching, regardless of anything.
Our thanks to Ryan Russell.
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