Q&A: Jason Collins says Carl Nassib is making ‘a positive impact on someone else’s life’

Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib (94) celebrates after the Las Vegas Raiders holds on to defeat the Los Angeles Chargers on the last play of the game during an NFL football game, Sunday, November 8, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)
Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to announce he is gay. (Peter Joneleit / Associated Press)

Carl Nassib, a defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders, made NFL history Monday when he became the league’s first active player to come out as gay.

He made the announcement on Instagram, saying that even though he’s a private person and isn’t seeking attention, representation and visibility are so important.

“I just wanted to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay,” the sixth-year player said in a video monologue from his home in Pennsylvania. “I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, but I finally feel comfortable enough to get it off my chest.”

Michael Sam, a former University of Missouri defensive end, was the first openly gay football player selected in the NFL draft, chosen in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams in 2014. He never made a final roster or played in a regular-season game, however.

Jason Collins, an NBA center for 13 seasons, publicly came out as gay at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season. When he signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets in 2014, he became the second openly gay athlete to play in any of the major men’s professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada. The first was soccer standout Robbie Rogers, who did so for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2013.

Collins, who attended Harvard-Westlake and Stanford, spoke to the Los Angeles Times on Monday and shared his reaction to the Nassib news, and what the player might expect going forward:

Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins acknowledges cheers from teammates in a 2014 game.Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins acknowledges cheers from teammates in a 2014 game.

Former Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins, shown in 2014, was the first NBA player to announce he was gay. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

What was the first thing that came to mind when you learned of Carl Nassib’s announcement?

Every team’s culture is different. I did see the response that the Raiders put out, which was great to see. I’ll be curious to see what his teammates will have to say, and in particular the leaders, the team captains and those people.

It was huge when I made my announcement, seeing the words of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash and Paul Pierce, the list goes on and on of guys who were either leaders in the NBA or guys who I was teammates with. Just reading his statement, he seems to have his head on his shoulders, seems very confident. Obviously, I think he’ll continue to grow as a human being, all of us do.

The donation and support, uplifting of the Trevor Project, I think that’s great. It shows the kind of person and kind of heart that he has. Even in this moment when he’s making a huge personal announcement, he’s still thinking of others. That shows what kind of person he is and what kind of teammate he is.

What are the feelings of relief when you come out as a professional athlete?

There are three components to it. The first is the private coming out that you make to those who matter the most — your friends and family. It seems like he has a great family, a great support system.

The second is the public coming-out statement, which happened today.

The third is your first game as an out gay man in professional sports. That first time that it counts for your team. There’s that day that’s still to come, but I believe he’s going to receive incredible support.

I was just talking with a few friends, they were texting me about all this happening, and they were saying they can’t wait to go out and buy his jersey. It’s really cool to see the support that will be there for him. I’ll be tuning in to watch. I’m not particularly a Raiders fan, but I can’t wait to watch and see how he does. I’ll be cheering him on every second that he’s on the field.

There are a lot of firsts that he’s going to accomplish. The first time he makes a tackle. The first time he gets a sack. The key thing is, when you are the first, you want to make sure that you’re not the last. You want to hold open the door and make sure that others see that it’s OK.

After such an emotional high, is there a natural comedown?

The coming down part is it will eventually be about, how is the team doing? How is he doing? As with all professional athletes, that’s what it’s about. When you’re on the field, is your team better? At the end of the day, that’s what it will come back to.

When I first came back and I was playing with the Nets, yes, there was a lot of media attention. But after about two weeks, all those stories about being the first gay athlete went away and it became about, «Wait, how are the Brooklyn Nets doing?» The same goes for Robbie Roberts, who won an MLS Cup.

As professional athletes, we get that. It will just take a few weeks. I think by Week 4 of the regular season, everybody will be like, «How are the Raiders doing? How is he doing as a defensive lineman? Is he pressuring the quarterback? Is he getting sacks?» It will be about what it always is about.

What memories of that time stand out to you?

I just remember being a member of the Brooklyn Nets in my first game back, playing in Los Angeles at the Staples Center against Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. My teammates made me honorary captain for that game. Might be the first time in the history of the NBA that a guy on a 10-day contract goes in and becomes an honorary captain. That’s the level of support that I received from my teammates. I hope that he’ll also receive that level of support, and I’m sure that he will. I’m very optimistic that he will.

What kind of impact do you think this will have on the LGBTQ community?

He’s going to have a positive impact on someone else’s life that he may never meet in his lifetime. I’ve met many people who have come up to me and told me how my story has impacted them.

What effect did those conversations have on you?

This was a little bit of a new experience. As professional athletes, we’re used to inspiring the next generation, people who are younger than us. But he’s going to find that his actions have inspired not only people who are younger than him but older than him. I can’t tell you the amount of people who were decades older than me who came up to me and said how my story impacted them. You don’t know what to say. You’re still in that mindset of being an athlete and helping kids. But he’s helping people across the board, of all ages.

Looking ahead for Carl Nassib, what do you think will surprise him?

The best part of when you reveal your authentic self publicly is that it will allow those people around you, whether it’s your teammates or people who you thought were friends, you will see their true colors come out. Some people who you might have thought would not be supporters end up being some of your biggest supporters. It’s going to be an incredible experience for him. Humans can surprise you.

The best piece of advice I got was from Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard‘s mom. I got a chance to become friends with Dennis and Judy Shepard. She said: «Let the haters hate. You keep living your life. Keep going out there and shinning and being that inspiration.» That’s what I want him to do.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.