Although Ryan Russell’s teammates welcomed him, he said at a talk Wednesday night that more work needs to be done to transform the men’s sports world into a more inclusive place.
The first openly bisexual player in the National Football League came out publicly last August in an ESPN interview. He said he hopes his openness will help any other LGBTQ athletes feel welcome. Russell is a Purdue alumnus and currently a free agent.
“It’s hard to support queer male athletes when they’re not out,” he said, drawing attention to the dearth of openly LGBTQ athletes in the NFL. “We need to see more athletes (come out).”
He thinks support systems need to be in place in sports leagues and universities for when athletes and students are ready to come out, which he said is a very personal decision. He said that team captains, coaches and leaders play a vital role in establishing an atmosphere of inclusivity and openness for LGBTQ athletes.
Chloe Davis, a sophomore in the College of Health and Human Sciences, wondered how student athletic trainers like herself could offer mental support for athletes.
“It’s really important for us to see the player as not only just a player but as who they are as a person, and accepting that holistically,” she said. “So I think now that we’ve opened up that conversation, it gives people more opportunities in the NFL — like women working as healthcare professionals — or just more acceptance in that area.”
Russell said there’s a fine balance between media parading LGBTQ players and normalizing them. He said he does not want to parade his sexuality but rather create space and uplift those who do not have the opportunity to come out as he did.
“When we get someone who’s out and who’s proud, we put a spotlight on because we want to normalize and it feels so strange and so backwards,” he said. “I believe there is a difference between parading and uplifting.”
Russell also spoke about how his own struggles with mental health led him to toxic coping mechanisms, including excessive drinking. He said he neglected listening to his emotions and taking care of himself.
“I found myself battling things that I wasn’t really ready to battle,” he said. “I found myself in places that I never thought I’d be. I grew up very much with the saying of, ‘Black people don’t get depressed. Black people don’t kill themselves. Black people don’t hurt themselves.’ There was a lot of just this very damaging kind of dialogue that I heard about.”
In writing poetry, Russell found an outlet for emotional times in his life, including when he lost his stepfather at a young age and his best friend at age 27.
“I didn’t really have names for these emotions,” he said. “I wrote this letter to God, kind of asking these questions and making metaphors with how I was feeling. ... Poetry, in many ways, was my first form of therapy.”
He said some teammates told him they started writing after he shared his poetry.
Purdue Student Government president Jo Boileau, who was in the audience, praised the LGBTQ Center for hosting programming on issues that not everyone on campus is receptive to.
“As an openly gay student body president here — the first one — and butting up against an administration that oftentimes is very difficult in these spaces, not receptive and seems like it’s not trending in the right direction, moments like this remind me to be optimistic and that we can have an impact,” he said.