Ryan Russell is one of only 16 players in NFL history to come out as gay or bisexual — and one of only three — alongside Michael Sam and Carl Nassib — to do it before retiring.
Russell, who goes by R.K., was drafted in the fifth round by the Dallas Cowboys in 2015. The defensive end played one season with Dallas before landing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he played 14 games in the 2017 season.
The following year, Russell signed as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills but was released in September 2018, as he was dealing with a shoulder injury.
A year later he came out as bisexual in a personal essay for ESPN.
“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,” he wrote.
Russell, now 29, is eager to get back into the NFL—his agent is in talks with teams looking for backups. In the meantime, he’s working out to stay in NFL shape while working on his writing. He’s the author of several articles on LGBTQ advocacy and, in 2019, he penned Prison or Passion, a collection of unflinching poetry about childhood, masculinity, love, and, of course, football.
He and his partner, professional dancer Corey O’Brien, live in Los Angeles.
Nassib, a defensive end for the Raiders, made his debut as the first out NFL player in a regular-season game on September 13. Russell was watching at home with Corey and grinning ear-to-ear. He wanted to be out there on the field, too, but he was thrilled to see an out athlete taking the spotlight.
About one month after the Raiders’ season opener, their coach, Jon Gruden, resigned following the revelation of racist and homophobic emails he sent to friends around the league from 2011-18 while he was working on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. In one of them, Gruden calls NFL commissioner Roger Goodell an anti-gay slur.
Gruden stepped down hours after the emails were publicized. Though the NFL has made significant strides towards inclusion, the messages were a sign of the atavistic clubby culture that still exists in NFL circles, making it hard for athletes to come out and be themselves publicly.
“There’s no place in the NFL or sports in general for hate of any kind,” Russell said in an interview. “Though reactive measures have been taken, let’s not forget that the damage has already been done and look at how we make the NFL proactive when it comes to supporting its player, staff, and spectators.”
LGBTQ Nation caught up with Russell to chat about his time in the closet, the NFL’s inclusion efforts, and how coming out has liberated him.
You have said NFL teams are out of excuses for not signing out players. How do you feel about that since Carl Nassib has come out?
Suddenly we haven’t really heard about this media disruption — that was kind of the fear — or guys in the locker room having problems with it. All of the various unproven reasons to maybe not have an LGBTQ+ player on your team, they’ve all officially, officially been debunked.
If anything, I feel stronger now than ever that there are no more excuses. The locker room is a place where you’re supposed to have people from all different backgrounds, cultures, races, experiences—everything—to make your team the best team possible.
How does diversity make a team better?
Our country was built on diversity, you know what I mean? It was built on other cultures being together in the melting pot. I think teams have those same values. Players are from different schools, different cities, they have different beliefs. And the fundamental of being a great team is being a team that can learn and grow. When you have different cultures and different people, you have so many different opportunities to learn from other players — on the field and off the field.
How do you feel about your situation as a free agent?
I feel great about my position. I’ve been a free agent before, and it’s a lot of sitting around and waiting — staying ready so you don’t have to get ready. I’m doing everything on my end that I could possibly do, so when I do get that call, I can be effective and just be my full self on the field. So I feel great.
Guys like Carl, guys like NHL prospect Luke Prokop [who came out in July] claim their truth and coming out and being their full selves and also being professional athletes and doing their job, I think we all make the road easier for each other, and also for athletes coming up into the sport, and young athletes in this world who really need to see representation.
How did you feel in NFL locker rooms?
The environment in the locker rooms for me, personally, was very welcoming and very warm. I always felt embraced and safe in locker rooms. Out in the real world, especially as not just a queer man, but as a Black man, you don’t feel safe a lot of the time. The locker room is a place where I was surrounded by brothers and people who I considered family, by people who really only cared about how much work and dedication I put into it. They only really cared that I showed up that day to accomplish our shared goal. To me, that was important. I wish the world outside of the locker room was more like that, where people are looking for what you bring to the world instead of how you were brought into it.
Did LGBTQ issues ever come up with teammates?
Not that I recall. I feel like they would stick out in my mind. I remember talking in college [at Purdue] about Michael Sam coming out, but most of the talk that I’ve encountered at any locker room has mostly been about football. There is some pop culture — music being played, movies that are out — but there really wasn’t a lot of sit-down discussion of sexuality and identity. But I don’t recall hearing those conversations — so to me, I can’t say they were treated negatively.
You’ve talked a lot about the importance of having an inclusive atmosphere in the league. How much of a responsibility does NFL management have in fostering that climate?
They have a huge responsibility. One, because I believe being more inclusive and having a diverse team results in more success. If we’re talking business and bottom line, you want a successful team, therefore you want a diverse team. That makes sense. But also, to be able to allow different players to have their different experiences and different platforms and fight their own battles off the field and just say, ‘Hey, we support that. We stand behind you, not just when you put on your helmet or jersey, but when you’re out there being a real person.’ That creates the synergy in a team, the championship mindset. You just feel more human.
Your fans — whether they’re Black or Brown or white or gay or bisexual or lesbians, men, women, non-binary people — they see that on the field. That representation is the true power of sports, and what moves our culture forward.
What more can the NFL do to create a more inclusive climate?
Well, first, let’s highlight the things they are doing: the National Coming Out PSA [in which Russell makes an appearance]; the emphasis on inclusion. The Washington Football Team is having a Pride Night, their first-ever! Things like that are all great — changing the logo to the Pride flag. That’s huge. Being so supportive to Carl when he came out [in June], and to keep inviting your former gay and bi players back to talk about all of these great things.
I would like to see a very focused and top-down—and bottom-up—approach. I’d like to see Pride represented in the commercial aspect of things, like going to a game and seeing a gay couple, whether that’s on the Jumbotron or on a T-shirt. Normalizing different types of family environments. Because at the end of the day, sexuality and identity are about love and family. And that’s what sports are about: love and family.
(LGBTQ Nation reached out to the NFL’s senior director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Sam Rapoport, to ask specifically about the league’s efforts to promote diversity. She pointed to mandatory inclusion seminars, as well as engagement with equality organizations.
“We’ve worked with the clubs in many different areas as it pertains to inclusion training, and we’ve done that annually where, and it’s mandatory, for the entire league, all offices, as well as all 32 clubs,” Rapoport said. “That includes all aspects of inclusion training. In addition to that, we’ve worked with several grassroots organizations that have gone into the clubs to speak directly to their players and coaches. Former player Wade Davis has worked with us in several capacities — he was instrumental in doing that. Some of the clubs do that on their own as well, but we certainly do have that mandate from a grand standpoint that every club must have an understanding — all players, all coaches, all staff — of what it means to be an inclusive leader and what it means to create inclusive workspaces.”)
You watched Carl Nassib play during the Raiders’ season opener. What did you think when he stripped the ball from Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson in overtime, setting up the game-winning touchdown?
It was a great moment for the Raiders, for Carl, and really for all of us — that we were able to witness it and be a part of that historic moment. It was historic when he walked on the field, and historic when he walked off.
How do you think Carl is handling things since coming out? Would you like him to be even more vocal about LGBTQ issues?
We’re friends. We’ve communicated. I think the great thing about what Carl is doing at this point is, he’s accepted who he is, and has allowed us to be part of his story. But he’s doing what he’s always done since he entered the league, which is focus on being a great football player and winning games. I think that’s going to be the strongest impact he can have being the first openly gay NFL player to play on the field: success.
Do you think the public’s embrace of Carl is matching the private reaction across the league?
The only person who could speak to that is Carl himself. He’s the one who’s experiencing being in the locker room and being on the field and just having those encounters. But from when I’ve conversed with him, it all seems very positive — outside of the usual critiques like the random Twitter troll here and there.
You said you always felt comfortable in the locker room. Why didn’t you come out publicly while you were on a roster?
Well, that was more just my own personal journey of understanding who I was. Bisexuality, for me, with a lot of the misinformation out there still to this day, with a lot of bi-erasure, it didn’t even seem like a viable identity. When I was contemplating any kind of coming out, it was framed in my mind as coming out as gay, and that identity didn’t sit right with me. I felt like I was kind of just trading one fake identity — being straight — for another fake identity of being gay. That never made me feel comfortable.
When I did come to this conclusion and understanding of myself as bisexual, my life was being split into 1,000 different directions. A lot of it didn’t have to do with football. A lot of it was my personal life. Football for me was an escape from that, and I just wanted to focus on the game when I was in it.
Do you think race changes the equation in coming out?
I can only speak for my personal experience — because even though there is a shared experience of being Black in America, and being queer in America, we all do come from different places.
Just from my lens, being a Black man and a bisexual man and someone in sports, at that time, I was in my early 20s. I felt like I already had a lot on my plate. When I started having success in Tampa — that was when Colin Kaepernick was taking a knee — and we were talking about social injustice and police brutality against people of color. The state of America at that time, and the state of sports at that time, that was so much on my plate already in terms of just mental and emotional capacity to the max. At that time, it was very stressful and very tough.
But fast-forward to my mid-20s to late 20s, when it comes to coming out, when it comes to talking about my sexuality and who I am, me going through that very specific struggle of misunderstanding and racism and social injustice as a Black man, it made coming out for me easier, because I had been through the worst of it, because of who I am and the way I was born.
I know now in my truest heart that my claiming that and fighting for other people who are being marginalized for that reason, that’s the most important thing: me standing in that truth.
With my sexuality, I wanted to view it kind of the same. This is important. It’s important to talk about social injustice whether you’re going to play a game in 10 minutes or not. It’s important to talk about sexuality whether you’re a professional male athlete or not. It kind of made me stronger, and coming out easier.
Has coming out liberated you artistically?
Definitely. Coming out showed me my truth and my vulnerability, and things that I perceived as my weaknesses, are actually my biggest strengths. That comes with any type of art. The truest, most vulnerable things are the things that resonate with me the strongest. You feel the authenticity in art, in the vibrations of what you’re doing, and what you’re encountering. I wouldn’t have known that without coming out.
Before, those things were enemies. I was about being strong and tough. That felt safe. But really, those things were holding me back. Coming out was the catalyst of freeing my art, and allowing me to share it.
How has being in a relationship with a man changed you?
I will say, just being in a loving, committed and serious relationship will change anybody. A relationship is a great reminder to me that I deserve love, outside of my career, and the secrets I kept from certain people and the persona of the NFL. You deserve love not for what you do, but for who you are, and how you treat people. For me, that was the biggest immediate impact.
I met my boyfriend at a transitional stage in my career. I was injured, I was out [of the game], and he was someone who saw me at my core and who could give me love and compassion regardless of where I went. That’s something that I’m so grateful for.
You’re very public about your relationship with Corey.
Bringing it back to representation, people need to know that you can have a loving relationship, you can hold hands with your partner and kiss your partner, and just go out and live a normal life and be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Also, in my own understanding of my sexuality, there is so much misinformation about bisexuality, bi-erasure. In my own mind, looking back at my 20-year-old self as I’m trying to figure it out, I’m thinking, ‘OK, if I date a man I’ll be gay, if I date a woman I’ll be straight.’ I think other bisexual people have to understand that your partner doesn’t define your sexuality. You are still bisexual whether you’re with a man, you’re still bisexual whether you’re with a woman. And, hey, you can play football, too, if you want to. So just being out there and being visible is important for anyone who doesn’t see that in their family, their workplace, their town.
They can look at us and see that.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and accuracy.
Alex Reimer is a digital content producer for Audacy Sports and deputy managing editor of Outsports.