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The Thought-Provoking Journey Of Football Player Ryan O'Callaghan

Posted on July 12, 2017 at 8:30 PM

By Dennis Stone


Professional sports is one of the few remaining arenas where someone’s coming out is still noteworthy. It amazes me how many gay people haven’t realized it yet, but people coming out is no longer a big deal in much of the straight world. Entertainment people are coming out all the time, and very little notice is taken. Do you remember the headlines when George Takei and Lance Bass came out? If they came out today there would be brief mentions in the media, and then people would go back to their viral videos and political posturing.


But coming out in professional sports, especially football, is still a big deal. Former pro football player Ryan O’Callaghan recently came out “officially” (more about that word in a bit) in an article on OutSports.com. The story wasn’t a huge one because O’Callaghan was not a star and had only played for four seasons, mostly as a backup, before injuries ended his career. But O’Callaghan is only the seventh player in the history of the NFL who played at least one regular season game and then later came out. None have come out while in the league. Michael Sam came out before being drafted, but he never progressed beyond pre-season games. When the first active NFL player finally comes out it will generate a media explosion, especially if the player is a star.

 

O’Callaghan’s story wasn’t huge because of his relative obscurity, but it did generate widespread coverage and comment. As I read the story on OutSports I was struck by several aspects of it that reflected the “new millennial” era we are in, and that also reflected the degree to which so many gay people don’t recognize the liberation and progress of that era.

 

O’Callaghan was so frightened by his identity and so sure that he would face widespread rejection, especially by people important to him, that he had planned as early as high school that he would kill himself once his football career was over. Until then football would be his “beard.” But he couldn’t see any possibility of living a fulfilling life of love and acceptance once people discovered his secret, and so suicide seemed like the only solution.

 

After injury ended his career during training camp in 2011 he began abusing painkillers to deal with his vulnerability and with the knowledge that his death was near. He began distancing himself from friends and family to make his suicide less painful for them. He had been persuaded to see the team’s psychologist about his drug issue, and after months of talking and trust-building he finally came out to her. That was the first person to whom he had EVER come out in his entire life.

 

The psychologist talked him into a gradual process of coming out to more and more people in his life. One of the first people he told was his last general manager - and friend - Scott Pioli. Based on how Ryan expressed his request for a meeting Pioli assumed that something really serious was going on, and he was prepared for the worst. In a completely different way Ryan was also prepared for the worst. When Ryan said he was gay Pioli expressed his support and then asked, “so what’s the problem you wanted to talk to me about?” He didn’t think being gay rose to the level of a problem. Ryan encountered much the same reaction as he continued to come out to other people in his life.

 

The most noteworthy aspect of Ryan’s story is the wide disparity between his fears of coming out and the reality of coming out. That is a disparity experienced and then marveled at by a wide array of gay people, both famous and not. They routinely talk about their dread, their fears of rejection, their assumption that their relationships with friends and family will change - and not in a good way. But then we hear and read over and over about how positive and cathartic the experience was, how embracing were the people with whom they shared their lifelong secret. And often, as with Ryan and his friend Scott Pioli, the reaction is simply “what’s the big deal?”

 

It stuns me that in 2017, with gay marriage the law of the land, with widespread societal repercussions for any anti-gay epithets or pronouncements, with almost all mainstream conservatives expressing some measure of support for gay people, there would still be so much widespread fear of rejection. Based on where American society is today, especially among young people, it would be much more of a surprise to encounter old-fashioned prejudice than the routine acceptance that we so often see.

 

Rejection does happen, of course. Gay kids still do get tossed out on the street. Bullying still does occur. But I find it curious that so many people - with family and friends who have loved them their whole lives - assume the worst, and are surprised when the worst doesn’t happen.

 

That leads me to the second significant aspect of Ryan’s story: the fact that SELF-ACCEPTANCE is the biggest obstacle to gay people living a happy and secure life. Ryan couldn’t accept himself, and therefore he couldn’t understand how other people could accept him. I’ve always said that no matter how many laws change and no matter how much societal acceptance we attain, self-acceptance will still be a problem for many gays. Sex is at the core of human identity, and being gay will always put a person in a small minority, and at odds with the dominant mainstream goal of getting married and raising a family. People don’t like to be different, and it’s hard to be more significantly different than being gay in a straight world.

 

Beyond that, both the Christian Bible and traditional Islamic teaching condemn homosexuality, and therefore there will, for the foreseeable future, be a segment of society that can’t see gay people as anything other than sinners. Self-acceptance will continue to be easier as society grows and matures, but it will remain a challenge for many.


For me the most surprising aspect of Ryan’s story is that his recent coming out was not his first public coming out. He had been out to family and friends, and then in 2014 he brought his boyfriend to his induction into the Shasta County Sports Hall Of Fame. He thanked his boyfriend in his speech. The local media was there. So he had come out to family, friends, and former teammates (including a couple of NFL stars), he was dating openly, and he had announced his sexuality in a speech with media present. That sure sounds like a full-fledged coming out to me. And yet three years later an article appears in OutSports that announces that Ryan O’Callaghan has come out. Only now is he “officially” out.

 

That situation represents a two-sided coin. On the one hand, a former football player being gay was such an insignificant situation to the local California media that they didn’t bother to report it, or even to approach Ryan with questions. Ho hum. On the other hand, there seems to be an appetite - among large segments of both the gay and straight communities - to know every time anyone at all prominent is identified as gay. It’s the old world and the new world colliding. I can see the day coming when coming out publicly really won’t be a “thing” any longer.

 

To a large degree that collision of worlds is generational. As Ryan himself said after the 2014 speech in which he thought he was coming out to the world: “At 29 I was, at that point, where today a lot of 16-year-olds are.” That evolution and that social maturation is at the core of the “new millennial gay outlook.” That process is inevitable and unstoppable. It’s too bad so few gay people recognize it.


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