Ryan Russell hasn’t played in the game he loves since 2018. The three-year NFL defensive end came out as bisexual in 2019. He shared that long-hidden secret during an interview with ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap stating that “football is so much bigger than sexuality.”
This month’s Black History Always special provides an open mic forum for Russell to share his truth. Finding Free, the story of Russell that debuts today on The Undefeated on ESPN+, is senior producer Brian Wilkins’ first project for The Undefeated.
Wilkins and Russell discussed the documentary with Front Row.
What was it like working on this particular show at this time?
Russell: Anytime I can talk with such a colorful and diverse community of brothers, sisters, and siblings that cross the intersections of sport, race, gender, and sexuality, I am reminded of our resilience, strength, beauty, and validity in this world. I thank ESPN and The Undefeated for bringing me into a room that encourages challenging, significant, and robust conversation that creates space for all of us.
NFL veteran free agent Ryan Russell opens up on his sexuality in a first-person essay to @kevinarnovitz: https://t.co/bUKezbx4Cz pic.twitter.com/B5HEyBUQjb
— ESPN (@espn) August 29, 2019
Wilkins: Part of being a storyteller is inspiring, educating, and being a voice. I have always aimed to use my platform to uplift us.
This story was one of a kind to be a part of, not only because of the living history that Ryan represents but because it was an opportunity to allow him to speak his genuine truth. Black and Brown people have long been key figures of the LGBTQ+ movement. To shine a light on Ryan, who is a trailblazer in his own right, was a real honor for me. There are groups of people in this country that deserve to not only have their voices heard, but action needs to be taken toward them receiving true equality. Ryan Russell represents two of those groups, the Black and LGBTQ+ community.
What do you think of Las Vegas Raiders lineman Carl Nassib’s recent announcement that he is gay? What advice would you give Nassib and any other active athletes who are on the cusp of a similar personal announcement?
Russell: I hope that this will continue for the countless athletes in male professional sports that will come out after us, and I hope those in their sport currently who are in the closet feel a little more courage to take the same leap if it is what’s best for them.
There are many reasons that society has used to convince us that our identity comes with a cost. Like myself, many have been told that cost is their career, their support, their dreams, their shelter, or even their lives, but I’m here to remind you as someone who has lived on both sides of secret and truth, the only cost you are paying is the cost of a full, authentic, vibrant, and beautiful life.
Coming out is hard, challenging, and complex, but living as an out person couldn’t be more fulfilling and empowering. Create space for others to live their best lives and create space for yourself to be happy.
Wilkins: The day that the news about Carl broke, I actually was texting Ryan. Ryan said it best: “There is enough room for all of us to shine, everyone deserves to find their ‘free.’”
I agree with that statement wholeheartedly, and I am glad that there is a light being shined on a group of people that have had to keep their true selves in the shadows.
ON THE UNDEFEATED: THE TRIUMPHS AND STRUGGLES
OF BLACK LGBTQ+ ATHLETES
(Clockwise, Top L-R): O’Neal, Russell, Fox, Telfer (ESPN)
The Undefeated’s senior writer Lonnae O’Neal moderates a roundtable discussion, “The Triumphs and Struggles of Black LGBTQ+ Athletes,” available on the site. Ryan Russell joins O’Neal, 400-meter hurdler Cece Telfer (the first openly trans woman to win an NCAA title), and Fallon Fox (the first openly trans MMA fighter).