Defensive end Ryan Russell, an NFL free agent, came out as bisexual in his own words in an article published Thursday on ESPN.com.
Russell, who has played for the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said he decided to make his sexual identity public to be the best version of himself.
"Have I lied to teammates, coaches, trainers, front-office executives and fans about who I am? Not exactly. But withholding information is a form of deceit," he said. "And I want the next part of my career — and life — steeped in trust and honesty."
During the football season, players spend more time with their teams than with their own families, Russell said, adding that "truth and honesty are the cornerstones of a winning culture."
"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," said Russell, who spent one season on the Cowboys roster and played two more for the Buccaneers.
He has not played in the NFL since 2017.
In addition to returning to the league, Russell said his other goal is to live his life openly.
"I want to live my dream of playing the game I've worked my whole life to play, and being open about the person I've always been," he said.
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Russell said that he grew up feeling as though his existence "slipped between the cracks of two worlds."
He didn't fit the stereotypes, he said, of what it means to be gay or straight, such as being "flamboyant" and "tidy" and he also was not "straight, hyper-masculine or aggressive."
"I cried quite a bit, and, as a young black man, I didn't fit the bill," he said. "I played football — so I put that in the straight column. I wrote poetry and romance stories — so I put that in the gay column."
He built two worlds, one of which was football, which provided him opportunities, and the other, that consisted of his personal relationships, inner thoughts and off-the-field interests.
"Pursuing a career in the NFL is such an intense challenge that I began to compromise my personal world — and my personal happiness," he said. "Though I confided in close friends and family and gave myself permission to date both men and women discreetly, I deprived myself the basic privilege of living an open life."
Hiding a part of his identity prevented him from reaching his full potential on the field, he said.
"If you aren't fully present and authentic in the training facility, you simply can't be a standout teammate," he said.
Russell recalled one instance after his first season in which a blogger whose identity he did not disclose had messaged him after seeing him in an Instagram story of a man the football player was dating. The blogger had "deduced" the two were an item, Russell said, so he panicked and messaged back "reminding him that there were implications about his actions he didn't fully understand."
"If the blogger outed me, I was sure that would kill my career, one that was supporting not just me, but my mother and grandfather," Russell said he remembered thinking. "He'd eradicate a childhood dream that was the product of years of work and sacrifice."
The blogger ultimately told Russell he would grant him a "favor" by not divulging the information, and advised that he be more careful.
"Let that sink into your brain: Even though openly LGBTQ people are thriving in every area of public life — politics, entertainment, the top corporations in America — they are so invisible in pro sports that a gossip blogger is doing a favor for a bisexual football player by not disclosing that he happens to date men," Russell said.
"Nobody should need a favor to live honestly. In nobody's worlds should being careful mean not being yourself," he added. "The career you choose shouldn't dictate the parts of yourself that you embrace."
Russell said that he does not aspire to be a symbol or media star but does want to encourage teammates to be the same people they have always been — on and off the field.
"Whatever I was to you before this letter, I'm still that now," Russell said at the close of his ESPN article. "We just know each other a little better."