In an Instagram post, Oak Bay’s Bayne Pettinger saw a beacon of representation.
When the NHL player agent publicly opened up about being gay last November, he wondered when the first active player from one of North America’s four major sport leagues would come out.
That day came on June 21 when defensive end Carl Nassib of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders took to Instagram to say who he is and announced he was donating $100,000 to the Trevor Project – an organization providing crisis and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ youth.
“I just want to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, but I finally feel comfortable enough to get it off my chest,” Nassib said.
“He’s a trailblazer,” Pettinger, who now lives in Toronto, told Black Press Media. “For him to step up and do that in the prime of his career is extremely admirable.”
The NFL family is proud of you, Carl. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/HXbcBuLg2X
— NFL (@NFL) June 21, 2021
Nassib’s message evoked no drama, no emotion for Pettinger, who said the NFLer seemed absent of fear while speaking his truth. The agent hopes Nassib’s calm, to-the-point demeanor was a sign the athlete felt the sports world would still accept him.
“He just kind of got it off his chest and moved on,” Pettinger said. “I think that really took the spotlight off him and more onto the (Trevor Project).
“Who your partner is is such a small part of a person and he kind of relayed that.”
Nassib’s coming out as an active player was huge for pro sports, Pettinger said, but it’s also a chance for young LGBTQ+ athletes to see themselves reflected like never before.
“It trickles down to the youth, for those who thought because of their sexuality, they couldn’t play professional sports.”
You can be that person who saves a life. 🏳️🌈♥️
— NFL (@NFL) June 22, 2021
Nassib’s action signals a shift beyond the stereotypes applied to pro athletes – especially in more “macho” sports – and those in the LGBTQ+ community, Pettinger said, noting he also never fit society’s view of the stereotypical gay man.
Since individual sports have more openly LGBTQ+ competitors, he hopes this is a turning point for team sports. From an early age team sports ingrain athletes with a sense of not being individuals or a distraction, and that their issues aren’t bigger than the team’s. That, Pettinger said, puts closeted athletes in a tough spot.
The hockey agent said sports are becoming a more inclusive place, but challenges remain.
He recalled his own playing days, when other players on the ice or rugby pitch would throw around hurtful and derogatory words, such as “fa****.” In those moments, he would think about how far the sports community still had to go.
As someone who lived with the “burden of not being their authentic self,” Pettinger said, hurtful language can be a barrier for athletes to come out.
“People go ‘oh I didn’t mean it that way’ and it’s like, well maybe use another word,” he said. “People sometimes don’t realize it until they can humanize it, and that’s what I found.”
If Nassib’s fans changed their opinion about him after he came out, Pettinger said the first step is asking why that is. More change is possible if people can be educated with empathy, he added.
To Carl Nassib and Kumi Yokoyama – two prominent, inspiring athletes who came out this week: I’m so proud of your courage. Because of you, countless kids around the world are seeing themselves in a new light today.
— President Biden (@POTUS) June 23, 2021
Support from the sports world and beyond flooded in for Nassib after the Instagram post. News that his jersey had sold out in several sizes and topped the NFL’s sales list after the post was another sign of reassurance for Pettinger.
“That’s fantastic. People are on board and sometimes it just takes someone to step up and be a game changer.”
Whether it’s the NHL, MLB or NBA, Pettinger knows the next game changer is out there.
“Maybe some active player who’s still in the closet looks at it and goes ‘if he can do it, I can do it’ and then we’re making progress.”
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