Former NFL player, Ryan Russell, tells I SEE U that he feels there is an imbalance in male athletics where society does not encourage, support or sustain LGTBQ+ youth in sports, much less create safe space environments early in their development. His latest memoir, "The Yards Between Us," has allowed him to reminisce on narratives of his own past—of growing up in conservative Dallas; shy, loving the game but struggling with expectations of being Black in the South; and learning to hide things about himself while playing as a defensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills. Stay tuned as host Eddie Robinson chats candidly with author and social justice advocate, R.K. Russell, who made history by becoming the first out active athlete in the NFL to identify as bisexual. He explores the notion of why players are, at times, showered with support from the league and teammates after coming out but then later find themselves unemployed. Russell, whose boyfriend is a professional dancer, also shares personal insight on interracial relationships and whether the stigma around couples of different races and ethnicities remains.
Eddie Robinson: Defensive lineman Ryan Russell came out of the closet several years ago with support from the National Football League and his teammates. Now it seems NFL players like Russell are cheered when they come out, but soon find themselves unemployed.
R.K. Russell: Race is a topic. Let’s not act like it’s not. So it’s just in terms of myself, that is not where kind of the measuring stick is.
R.K. Russell: The measuring stick is with the NFL and all players and what that’s like for LGBTQ plus players.
Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson and stay tuned as we chat unguarded with former NFL player and author R.K. Russell. We’ll explore his latest memoir. And find out what it was like to come out as the first NFL player to identify as bisexual.
Eddie Robinson: When will homophobia no longer be a factor in major American pro sports for men and women? Oh yeah, I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U.
Eddie Robinson: This is I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. In 2019, football star R.K. Russell broke barriers when he came out as bisexual in an essay for ESPN. He’s just released a hardcover version of his personal journey called, The Yards Between Us. A memoir of that. Life, love, and football, where he traces the highs and lows of his life in and out of football.
Eddie Robinson: From early moments of being shy, struggling with expectations of being a Black kid, to being drafted by his hometown team, the Dallas Cowboys. And on the seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills.
Eddie Robinson: Experiencing all kinds of setbacks from being cut, from being injured, the tensions of going out on dates. Discovering the underbelly of alcohol and drugs. What it can do in both homosexual and heterosexual relationships, to be quite honest. The pain and devastation of losing a best friend. Little did he know that these challenges, these adversities, would build him up into the man that he’s now become.
Eddie Robinson: An inspiring voice of living one’s true self and embracing your own identity. Easier said than done, right? Here to talk about his journey and his decision to announce to the world that he’s bisexual and to learn a bit more as to why he felt that revealing this about his private life was so important to him in the first place, we welcome to the show, former NFL player, writer, and gay rights activists.
Eddie Robinson: R.K. Russell. R.K., thank you so much for being a guest on I SEE U.
R.K. Russell: Oh my god, thank you for having me. I will say, one of the best intros I’ve had thus far.
Eddie Robinson: Oh! Well look, we’re talking narratives. And Insight and rumor has it that Sony TV has sort of like rocked your world. And we’re looking for, and if you’re looking for people with other stories and narratives, hello, R.K., hello, I’m here, but the book in and of itself is fantastic.
Eddie Robinson: And I, I, I say in the intro, former NFL player, are you still looking to play in the NFL, Ryan? Or do you, do you think your days in the NFL have expired? What, what, what say you to that?
R.K. Russell: No, I will say the, the former is, is very intentional. You know, a lot of times I feel like, uh, LGBTQ plus men in the space when they come out are kind of retired for like they retire us. But to me, you know, making the announcement of being retired or retiring is a decision. You know, whether you feel as though you are no longer capable or no longer have the desire or no longer prioritize football in that way, that is the decision you make. I never made that decision.
R.K. Russell: My decision to come out was one to embrace myself, to love myself and to hopefully encourage. LGBTQ plus people in sport male specific to the same, because there’s not a lot of that little to none of that actually, um, in the professional sports space and in the sports space in general. So the former is intentional.
R.K. Russell: I also am in a place in my life where I do have so much going on. I will just say the Sony rumors are not rumors. They’re very true. And that football continues to be something I love. And that’s something that I will stay connected to, but that if a team were to reach me out to me, I would one love that and two, it would, it would have to be an opportunity that, that works for that mutually works for both me and the club.
Eddie Robinson: And that’s interesting because, you know, when we were kind of looking at the actual. You know, my producer and I were kind of, you know, trying to figure out what, you know, what to talk about, you know, for this interview and the folks who reached out to us from your, from your team mentioned, you know, it’s okay to ask him about this notion of NFL players like me are cheered when we come out.
Eddie Robinson: And soon are unemployed. I mean, that’s really sort of kind of a fascinating notion, right? To think like that. And from what I gather, your mom’s initial reaction to you when you came out to her prior to the essay was that she said to you, What about football? And look, when the chips are down, we don’t think about living our true self.
Eddie Robinson: We don’t think about being free to live our lives. We think about how to survive and it’s fascinating how we put our livelihoods, our way of making money, our way of making a living. As a primary reason why we make the decisions that we make. And I’m sure it’s likely to be the top reason why certain professional athletes still don’t want to come out.
Eddie Robinson: They’re just not sure how this will impact their way of making money. What say you to this in terms of what other pro athletes. You know, are they still thinking about this notion of, you know, what, this is my way of making money. I just got to have to kind of make some decisions on my own. Congrats R.K., but you know, for me, I’ve got to kind of, you know, weigh some options here.
R.K. Russell: Of course. I mean, coming out is so personal for everyone regardless of the career that you have, uh, you know, it varies across as of across communities, across, you know, places, locations that we’re raised. We’re in locations that we are currently in, you know, And I will say that as someone, as a. Someone who was a closet athlete and closeted for most of my life, still up to this point that you will find the reasons regardless, if you do not want to come out because it, because it is, it’s something that takes courage.
R.K. Russell: It’s something that is a process. It’s something that does not happen overnight. Something that you in first term have to get comfortable with because we were all, you know, I’ll speak specifically for Americans. We’re all born here in a heteronormative society. We’re being other is look at as less than regardless of what that othered-ness is.
R.K. Russell: So it’s a journey, like it is active. And if you want reasons or excuses not to do it, they might be valid, but you will find them, you know what I mean? Like when I don’t want, when I don’t want to turn in a deadline, I will find a reason not to, there, there, there is always going to be a reason. And that’s why I encourage athletes specifically in young people.
R.K. Russell: I focus more on, on younger athletes because I also feel like there’s an imbalance, especially in male. Athletics, where we are not encouraging, supporting, um, or sustaining our young LGBTQ plus youth in sports. We’re not creating safe environments for them in sports early on. So they drop out of sports. Of course, we don’t have a lot of LGBTQ plus male professional athletes because we told them when they were younger, that they weren’t included, that they threw like a girl or that they did something that was inherently opposite of what we envision male sports people to be.
R.K. Russell: There’s a reason that. Our counterparts in female professional sports are so much further along because young female athletes don’t face so much adversity and homophobia when it comes to sport. Now, women of course face a plethora of other adversities, LGBTQ plus space, women athletes don’t kind of have that same stigma.
R.K. Russell: If they’re almost perceived to be part of the community, as soon as they engage in sport. So, yeah, so, I mean, there, there’s so many different facets of it. I think that all that needs to be considered.
Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson. And you’re listening to I SEE U. We’re chatting with former NFL player, social justice advocate and author R.K. Russell, his book, the yards between us, a memoir of life, love, and football is available now and published by Anscape books.
Eddie Robinson: It’s already hard enough, competitively speaking, and you can speak on this, as a professional athlete, you know, each week you’re battling to keep your job, much less trying to, you know, think about coming out, um, and, and there just might even be some fan backlash of not purchasing tickets, so you’ve got the owner Slash team dynamic to try to figure out that because there’s a certain generation of folk out there who just don’t see these individuals as someone that they’d want their son or daughter to look up to, as sad as that may sound.
Eddie Robinson: Why, in your opinion, Don’t many players come out in baseball, in football, in hockey? Why aren’t we seeing still a number of athletes wanting to come out?
R.K. Russell: Yeah, oh my so many reasons. I mean, you know, I kind of alluded to, to the youth aspect of it and in the culture of football that starts very young. We have to remember that also, like this is a something, a decision that a young, that a young person has made at some point. Or whenever you discover your identity and you kind of keep recommitting to, um, and then you finally achieve the dream and it’s like, okay, now you’re going to, you’re gonna
Eddie Robinson: mm-hmm.
R.K. Russell: go against all of the reasoning that that has got you kind of to this point.
R.K. Russell: But also just to speak on the professional side of things and on the competitiveness and the nature of the sports, and the nature also of the fandoms of male sports and the, the homophobia and the big tree and the misogyny that lives in those spaces. You know, that all of that pressure is very real.
R.K. Russell: It’s very valid. It’s visceral at times. Um, it’s not nice knowing that you are in a sport where your fan base most likely, uh, feels at opposition with who you are. But I will also say that all of that is secondary to how you feel about you, um, to your own life, you know, we’re, we are essentially our businesses, like we are our brands and when as a professional athlete, you are the products and it’s so hard not to see yourself in that way.
R.K. Russell: It’s so hard not to. See your own existence in life as a list of pros and cons and at a time, the, the list of cons might not outweigh the pros, but the only pro that matters is that you will feel at peace with yourself. You will go to sleep and wake up every day, look yourself in the mirror and love that person and support that person, not just privately between closed doors and not just with friends and family.
R.K. Russell: But at all spaces, you should always put yourself first. You know, we have an obligation as athletes to our players and our teams in our cities, secondary to the obligation we have to ourselves. And once we start understanding that, I think the culture will shift. I do think, I think, I think you gotta go from bottom up and top down.
R.K. Russell: Like, you, I want, of course, our players staying in sports and coming into sports. And I want more players to get drafted. We haven’t had an out player get drafted in football since Michael Sam. I want that to change. And, you know, I want professional players to feel more comfortable. You know, I think we both inspire each other.
R.K. Russell: There’s so many times I’m inspired by the youth in the next generations. And there’s so many times that my generation and older generations inspired me to this day. You know, we can’t wait for what, you know, it’s not a chicken or an egg situation. Let’s just get the hatchet and let’s just get the going and let’s, let’s make it happen.
R.K. Russell: You know, we talk about survival and wanting to be able to provide for your family. For me, a survival, even of the definition is not a monetary thing because you can live and make a lot of money and not be living to me. That’s not surviving to me. That’s not really enjoying the fruits of your labor and the life and the colorfulness of your identity, your soul in this world.
R.K. Russell: That’s just making a check and you can make a check all day long, surviving and really enjoying your life. This fragile, limited, unexpected life starts within. It doesn’t. It doesn’t come from someone who writes a check for you. It comes from yourself, um, day in and day out.
Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we’ll chat more with former NFL player R.K. Russell. We learn more about the messaging behind the title of his latest memoir, The Yards Between Us, and what it was like growing up in Carrollton, Texas, a city located near Dallas. As a child raised by his mother in a single parent household, he describes for us if he thinks his life would have changed had his biological father remained in his life.
Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson. I SEE U. We’ll be right back in just a moment.
Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified. When new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.
Eddie Robinson: This is I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. We’re chatting unguarded with former NFL defensive lineman R.K. Russell. He’s sharing more with us about his journey of living one’s truth, embracing the full you. What’s his life been like since he came out in August of 2019 as bisexual? A year later in 2020, he challenged teams in the league to sign him, saying NFL teams are running out of excuses to not sign an openly gay or bisexual player.
Eddie Robinson: Recently, in the summer of 2023, The Jacksonville Jaguars hired Kevin Maxen, an assistant strength and conditioning coach. He’s become the first male coach in the NFL, or any of the four major American men’s pro sports, to publicly come out as gay. But as far as players go, it’s still pretty tight and intense.
Eddie Robinson: Now, we have seen an openly gay professional athlete out on the field. Seven year NFL veteran, trailblazer, and free agent. Carl Nassib, who publicly came out in June of 2021 while he was with the Las Vegas Raiders. He signed a one year deal in 2022 with Tampa Bay. But he’s currently not playing with any team in the league, which is quite interesting to note.
Eddie Robinson: We’ll talk more about him later in this segment, but now we’re ever so grateful to chat with former NFL player and author R.K. Russell, who’s calling us from his home in Los Angeles. You know, as I listen to you, I think, oh, I love writers. You know, they have a way with words, they have a way of expressing themselves and, you know, The Yards Between Us, you know, tell us more about the title and what this experience was like for you, R.K..
Eddie Robinson: I mean, you know, you started young as a, you know, as a child from what I gathered, you know, writing poems. You know, did you always have this passion for poetry and just writing in general?
R.K. Russell: Oh my gosh. Yeah. I mean, it was all of those things. It’s, it continues to be all of those things for me to be therapeutic, to be self reflective, to be something that opens my own eyes to how I feel.
R.K. Russell: Sometimes I don’t know how I feel about situations so I can take a moment away from it and, and, and articulate in that way and write it down. So for me, it felt very natural. It grew into a passion later on, but at the beginning it felt as natural as using my right hand. Like it just was an extension of how I saw the world and how I could best express my views to someone else if I didn’t want to.
R.K. Russell: And like I said, also to myself, it just felt like another form of communication for me. That I quickly realized was my truest and most genuine form of communication. I would find the courage to say things in writing that I did not have the courage to say out loud to myself or to other people. So for me, like I said, it was a very natural extension of my experience of life in my human experience.
R.K. Russell: It grew to something that I felt like could bridge communities, could really bring connection to me and other people. When I got the courage to share, when I saw that. If other people might not have the language that I can maybe provide and we could connect and vice versa. There were people that were providing language in scenario and metaphor in, in all of these things for me that I felt in myself, um, escaped me at times.
R.K. Russell: So it’s been such a connective force in my life as well.
Eddie Robinson: And that title, I mean, like who came up with that title is it’s brilliant. THe Yards Between Us.
R.K. Russell: It was me. I would
Eddie Robinson: love it.
R.K. Russell: I will say like at the time it was me and my agent, Sarah Baldwin, who I love. Uh, we were going through lists of titles, and I think I just sent like a list of things in my mind.
R.K. Russell: And at first, I sent the list, she added some things, we sent it back and forth. And I read right by it, like there was a bunch of things I kind of read right by it the first time I was like, I don’t know, I was like, I need to so much was happening on the Black Lives Matter when it was like at the at the pinnacle at that time and I was just so overwhelmed.
R.K. Russell: And then the next day something told me just like, open it up and look at it again. And that title, The Yards Between Us, instantly stuck out to me. I was like, Oh, this is this is the title. And you know, it means it means several things. I think in that moment, you know, the person that was writing the book, the.
R.K. Russell: The soul and the emotional person that I am and the messy, talented, multifaceted person that I am. The Yards Between Us, was really indicative of who I am now. The out, proud, Black, bisexual, man, writer, speaker, all of these things. And the boy that I was then. The shy, introverted. Confused and really overwhelmed at times.
R.K. Russell: Boy, at that distance and throughout the book, you see that distance close. You see at times that progression is not linear. Sometimes I get closer and then it’s like, Oh, R.K., what you doing? You done took 10 yards back, you know, but, but, but it’s about hopefully that distance closing. And so that’s the journey in the title, you know, the personal aspect of it.
R.K. Russell: I think the outwardly facing and the public aspect of it. It’s about communities. It’s about people. It’s the yards between the LGBTQ plus community and the sports community. Closing within me and me getting to a point of coming out and being an advocate. It’s about the Black community and the LGBTQ plus community, the Black community and the American sports community and all that in large.
R.K. Russell: It’s about people that are other than people that for a long time have been deemed the majority. The distances between us and how we can close those gaps. It’s an olive branch to people unlike me to see a human story and to connect to the view. The very human experience and to create empathy to me, it was just so visual of everything that my life at that time represented and still represent.
Eddie Robinson: Growing up, fill us in on what it was like for you in Carrollton, Texas, I know for me, you know, and, and why I really sort of resonated with the book, being gay, being Black, growing up in Mississippi, you know, that somehow pushed me deeper and deeper into the closet, but briefly described, you know, you know, what it was like growing up for you in Carrollton, Texas.
R.K. Russell: Oh, my gosh, I will say that Texas was the first time where I did, I felt other, it was the first time where I realized that being a Black person came with. Certain challenges in other people’s mind, certain concepts in other people’s mind and that. I would be viewed through a lens that was not about my character, that I would be viewed for a lens that was not about my actions even, and that I would be, especially at that time being a child, that I would be the victim to other people’s ignorance, honestly.
R.K. Russell: So, that was like a huge pill to swallow, um, at the young age of like 7, 8 when I moved there, uh, and it changes how you navigate, it does change also the level of safety that you feel, and I think for children it’s so important for young people to feel safe in the environment to feel loved and to feel safe.
R.K. Russell: And you know, when you’re facing racism, when you’re facing bigotry or hate of any time, you know, that is literally the opposite of love. So that is kind of taking from you and then your safety as a Black man in America. We can see when I moved to Texas in the 90s to now is something that is still very much at risk.
R.K. Russell: That is still. Uh, the safety of Black people and the treatment of Black people and Black bodies and in the violence with Black people is still something to this day that is not right. That is not at a place that is good enough.
R.K. Russell: You know, so all of that, you’re coming into counter with all of that at a young age. When really your only desire is to just, you know, enjoy your life to figure out who you are and to just move through and to just have fun, you know, oftentimes Black people specifically in Southern states are not allowed to, to do that.
R.K. Russell: You know, we think about safety. I remember my mother telling me, giving me tips and notes on how to act. You know, whether the police stopped me, you know, which in my first thought I’m like, why are the police stopping me? I’m not, I’m not doing anything. But those, for instance, that did happen. And I’m glad that we did have those talks because I was heard knowing that as a Black man, I was going to face these certain things.
Eddie Robinson: Yeah. You lost both your biological father and stepfather early in your life.
Eddie Robinson: Do you ever think about what was missing? Had things turned out differently?
R.K. Russell: Yeah, I will say, I mean for, for those who didn’t read the book as well. I, my stepfather who was raising me at the time passed on a motorcycle accident. And my biological father was not in the picture in my life at that time.
R.K. Russell: Really throughout the whole book wasn’t, wasn’t much in the picture. So. When I was young, all the time, you know, I, I, I think, you know, especially as you start to see other children, as you start to compare. And when I moved to Texas and I saw, you know, affluent families, specifically affluent white families, specifically affluent white families who would remind me of my skin or of my, my financial status or my mom’s financial status.
R.K. Russell: Cause at the end of the day, we was all broke. We was all kids and all of us had jobs, but you know, of, of, of the money of my, of my household and of being a single, of a single parent. You know, that it, it, it opened my eyes to like, what would lie? I’m like, okay, they got two parents. They telling me their life is better.
R.K. Russell: I also don’t really know, but they’re telling me their life is better. Would my life be better? Um, with two parents. So something that, that, you know, that did consume a lot of my thoughts when I was younger, it’s something that I at times did want to lash out to my biological father about. And being closer, I will say now that we have a better relationship than we’ve ever had, it’s still not one of, you know, the traditional whatever, because that’s just not our experience.
R.K. Russell: That’s also not what I need at this point. I’m grown. I don’t really need that from him. And if there are times where I do need it. He’s open to, to be there. So, so that, that is nice just to have that open communication. But I will say that my father taught me a great lesson, either intentionally or unintentionally.
R.K. Russell: And a lot of the times it was of what not to do, and it was of what not, not to be. And it was of how not to treat my kid or even a decision. My father was also young when I was born of, you know, that maybe being a young father will also wouldn’t be for me. So, I don’t know. I turned out, I mean, I love my life now.
Eddie Robinson: Yeah.
R.K. Russell: I love my mother and our relationship. I know that that would all be so different and I can’t say it would all be for positive. You know what I mean? Like, I’ve made so much peace with it now.
Eddie Robinson: Love that. And I’m interested you, I heard that you know, that, you know you loved your mother. I, I heard that little, uh, comment you just made, you know, and it, it, it’s interesting because in your memoir you talk about how when living in Carrollton, You know, your uncle would say that being raised by your mom, you know, how could you possibly become a man?
Eddie Robinson: You know, what were your own thoughts as someone raised by a single mother?
R.K. Russell: Oh my gosh. I mean, Raised by a single, I mean, raised by my mother too. Like I, you know, there are people in this life that I have encountered that I find phenomenal, that I find amazing, joyous people and my mother’s the first person like that I had ever encountered.
R.K. Russell: I was so fortunate. To be born by someone like that and to be able to have, to share life with someone who I, to this day, believe is one of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever encountered in this world. So, you know, the financial stuff, when the kids were saying that at school, it kind of, I kind of got that.
R.K. Russell: The dad not being there. I kind of got that. You know, everything was about like adding to my childhood or my experience. So to me, I could rationalize that in my head as twisted as it was, but for my uncle at that time to belittle my mother and to take the one that I was like, Oh, I know she’s amazing.
R.K. Russell: Like we could talk about, you know, the dad, you know, the dad hole missing here or the money missing. But. But that’s great. I’m like, we can’t do that. You know, to me, to me, that was, I never, I never questioned how amazing my mother was, you know, as a kid, I said dumb stuff about, you know, money and all that.
R.K. Russell: But I never questioned how awesome my mom was. And it was really just upsetting because we moved to Texas partly because we did have family there. Partly because I did have an, an, an uncle and an aunt there. And to, you know, already feel like a lot of people in the state and the climate of the state wasn’t as welcoming as I thought.
R.K. Russell: And then to realize the family that we had there wasn’t as welcoming as I thought. You know, it was a hard pill to swallow, but I had an amazing mother. That’s also something that led me to sport is a want for community and for brotherhood. And I got a lot of that in Texas as well. That’s why I can’t ever just, you know, rip Texas down because it did also give me a lot of amazing things. Um, football being one of them.
Eddie Robinson: Well, I mean, unlike you, my, my father who passed away in 2018, we had a very close relationship. And I oftentimes think about, you know, what he would be doing, you know, if you were alive. I’m curious as to, you know, you know, you, you, you love your life. You mentioned that, but I’m all, I’m always curious to know, you know, do you think, you know, having a father throughout your entire life, you know, what would have changed?
Eddie Robinson: Would you be the man you are today? Even if he were a part of your life.
R.K. Russell: That’s a good question. I, and it’s funny, you, I was like, you know, it’s kind of a case of like, I don’t know what I don’t know. I think in being a father to a child, I’ll realize I’m like, Oh, okay. It would have been nice if I had a dad to do ABC, you know, to do what I’m able to do now, I will say that if my mother, like I taught her, I’m sorry, I know we’re talking about dads.
R.K. Russell: I just keep talking about my mom. The woman that she is, if she would have allowed also a man to be in our lives, that he would have had to be a certain caliber of man. So I, I do believe that I would be in some semblance of the man I am today. If not, I would just, you know, I, I would have then failed two parents, which I don’t see that happening.
R.K. Russell: So I’m confident in, in her decision and in partnership and in, in raising a kid with someone. And, and I do believe that it would have been different. Uh, not even saying different would have been better. It just would have been different. Uh, and I, and I think I’ll continue to kind of understand that as I continue to go through life and have, have children.
R.K. Russell: I do want to be a father one day as well. Um, my partner and I talk about kids often. Um, we talk about raising Black kids specifically. My partner is a white man. So we’ve had a lot of talks just about. What it is to be Black in America now, what we hope for it to be, how we get there, how we protect and empower and love our children through it all.
R.K. Russell: So like I said, I think I’ll, I’ll know more. I might call my dad. I mean, My biological father’s name is Leonard. He might get some more angry calls in the future where I’m like, you should have did this. And he’ll take it on the chin as he, as he has been doing. We’ll move forward.
Eddie Robinson: Yeah. Yeah.
Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U.
Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re chatting with former NFL player and author. R.K. Russell. His latest book is a memoir entitled, The Yards Between Us. R.K. Is sharing more details about his story, his journey of making history, becoming the first out active NFL player to identify as bisexual. You know, what do you think about Carl Nassib, the only active openly gay NFL player now?
Eddie Robinson: He’s a defensive in what’s what the defensive ends, you know, I was, uh, outside linebacker Michael Sam. He was a defensive end. Carl Nassib’s defensive end. You’re a defensive end. What’s up with that? You know, in terms of the roles of, of, of, of openly gay-dom, but yeah, what’s your thought on, on your thoughts on Carl Nassif
Eddie Robinson: and what he’s done?
R.K. Russell: Yeah. I mean, I, yeah. I have the pleasure of also knowing him and in being, you know, friends and having communication with him, you know, I think as an athlete, extremely talented as a person, I believe he has a good heart and his art is in the right place. I think what he did took. So much courage and bravery and what he continues to do, you know, through his own advocacy, through support of the Trevor project and, uh, you know, we have similar focuses is also when it comes to LGBTQ plus youth, LGBTQ plus youth in sports, I think it’s awesome.
R.K. Russell: I think he’s, I’m so glad that we do have like. A positive example of someone coming out and continuing to play the sport that they love and to have success and to, you know, to be more than just the gay football player and then to be able to just play. So, I mean, I appreciate it. I mean, before I came out, I couldn’t have saw it happening before Michael Sam came out.
R.K. Russell: I couldn’t have seen it happening. Uh, we are all pieces in, in what I hope and can truly, I do believe in true help is the evolution of football and we all play crucial parts. You know, I give him his flowers. He gives me mine. We continue to do that for each other because. There is no us without all of the others before
Eddie Robinson: I totally agree. Totally agree. Carl Nassib is a man who I admire. I mean, the way he carries himself in press conferences and interviews, and not only is Carl Nassib, a very masculine man who’s breaking down and challenging stereotypes, love that he’s also white. And. You know, we’ve got players like you, R.K., Michael Sam, who, you know, Michael Sam, for instance, he played on pro league training camps and practice squads and whatnot.
Eddie Robinson: You’ve voiced your opinions. You’ve voiced your concerns, kind of called out the NFL and editorial pieces. And you’re Black. Do you think that race might be playing a factor now? Whereas two years ago, I mean, look, you know, race may or may not have been played that much of a factor. Carl Nassib comes out, you know, 2021.
Eddie Robinson: So far, there’s been a handful of players who’ve come out publicly after, you know, they’ve retired. But should we look at race playing a factor in all of this? Or should I just go and grab a glass of water and say, Calm down, Eddie. Monitor the situation. Give it some time. And let’s just see where things, you know, fall where they may.
Eddie Robinson: But what do you think about that? Should we look at race?
R.K. Russell: To be candid, why are we, I mean, aren’t, aren’t we always looking at race? Like isn’t, isn’t it here in America, race plays a factor in so many things. You know what I mean? Whether it’s football related, whether it’s about being on teams opportunities, you know, race constantly because of the construct of America, because of the internalized racism and the systemic racism and the systems built off the backs of racism.
R.K. Russell: You know, we, we should constantly be at least conscious of it, at least thinking of it, at least. Actively, um, fighting against those things, I will say in the situation between myself and Carl and even Michael sent, we are three just individuals with completely different experiences. We all came out completely different points and moments in our careers.
R.K. Russell: You know, there are so many factors, race might be one of them. If it is, let’s do, you know, let’s do a check. Like it’s, it’s, it’s a physical at this point. It’s a checkup. Like, let’s. Let’s check it off the box and make sure that that won’t impede other other players from coming out other players of color from coming out And let’s move forward, you know, if we check and there’s nothing there.
R.K. Russell: It’s not a race issue It is just us. It’s just a circumstantial thing, you know, all the chips fall where they made that’s fine But I just being a Black person in America, I’m always I, I’m like, we need to just make sure and
Eddie Robinson: look, I admit, you know, as a person who did, you know, who’s on a sports talk radio station, I admit, I have not compared statistical performance factors, agility measurements, number of sack counts, you know, none of that, you know, I, you know, but, you know, You and Carl, you’re roughly about the same age.
Eddie Robinson: You started your, you started your career in 2015. He started a year later, you know, you’re both defensive linemen. You know, I’m just kind of, you know, why is Carl Nassar playing in the league? And you’re not, it’s one of these questions that really just kind of. Throws me off right.
R.K. Russell: This is what I will say the focus for me is not that I want the same opportunities as Carl.
R.K. Russell: I don’t I he he’s earned his thing. We all have our different path.
Eddie Robinson: Yeah.
R.K. Russell: I want Carl to have the same opportunities as straight players or closet away from me I want the next LGBTQ plus athlete to have the same opportunities. That’s what it is. Like I’m not I’m, I’m not at a measuring stick with, with Carl Nassib as he’s not at with anyone else.
R.K. Russell: We’re just trying to make sure that there’s equal opportunity for an athlete who is talented and dedicated and a good person as every other athlete, regardless of their multiple identities, regardless of race, regardless of sexuality. But, you know, Carl and I, like I said, we’re all parts of the same puzzle here.
R.K. Russell: I think my focus is on the next Laker player. His focus is on his career right now. He is a free agent right now. He’s actively trying to still, you know, get into it and play. He can still contribute to helping the team win. But yeah, I think, I think that’s what it is. I’m not, I… Like I said, race is a factor in America.
R.K. Russell: I’m tackling race on a global scale on, on, especially a scale here. Does it affect football all the time? We can talk about, you know, footballs and the NFL stands on Black Lives Matter. We saw Colin Kaepernick, you know, race is still a conversation there. The NFL is still not doing enough there. There are not enough Black head coaches.
R.K. Russell: You know what I mean? Like. Racist the topic. Let’s not act like it’s not, but just in terms of myself, even, or in Carl, that is not where kind of the measuring stick is. The measure stick is with the NFL and all players and what that’s like for LGBTQ plus players.
Eddie Robinson: Coming up, more with former NFL player R.K. Russell. We explore his life a bit deeper and ask his thoughts on the rationale behind his first name, Ryan, and how his mother wanted his name to be racially ambiguous. Plus, we get his insight on interracial relationships. As his boyfriend, Corey O’Brien is white.
Eddie Robinson: Does a stigma remain in society when people from different races and ethnicities commit to each other? Let’s hear from you. We’d love your feedback. Follow us on Instagram or send us an email talk. At I S E E U show. org. I’m Eddie Robinson. I SEE U will return in just a moment.
Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.
Eddie Robinson: This is I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. Our guest is former NFL player and author R.K. Russell. He broke the mold when he came out as bisexual in an essay for ESPN. And his latest memoir, The Yards Between Us, explores his love of football, men, and women. And how he was able to walk a crazy tightrope of keeping his sexuality secret, all while trying to keep his private and public lives in check.
Eddie Robinson: The book has been out for a few months, and so he’s here to share with us what his life’s been like since its release. Where he stands on a host of issues relating to race, culture, and identity. His memoir has already been optioned by Sony Pictures TV and acclaimed actress Gabrielle Union. As Russell will be co writing and co producing a half hour comedy series based on his remarkable story.
Eddie Robinson: R.K. Is calling us virtually from his home. In Los Angeles, I wanted you to talk to us about the importance of defining masculinity for yourself, perhaps even redefining masculinity. You know, I think all gay people aren’t a monolith and I believe society though, and perhaps even members of the gay community try to warp men into this label.
Eddie Robinson: And it bothers me when I personally have. I have no desire to dress in drag, I have no desire to put on high heels, no desire for makeup foundation, but then folks look at me and say that I’m experiencing internal homophobia. You know, I mean, what I’m experiencing is a notion of toxic masculinity, you know, and I just kind of want to scream and it’s like, you know, I’m experiencing me.
Eddie Robinson: This is who I am. And I just love, for instance, I, you know, I joined Gotham Knights and I joined that team back in 2007 to play rugby. And it was interesting because I’d come out to my parents and I needed something to like, I needed something to hit, you know, and not to be like violent and go that route.
Eddie Robinson: No. I was around like minded individuals. I was surrounded by, you know, a group of men who, you know, was a predominantly gay league and it was just phenomenal and I had such a camaraderie of support. But talk to us about the importance of defining. Masculinity for one’s own self so that others can really start discovering those parts of us, those layers within us that might hopefully one day allow others to really understand who a person is and why it’s not always good to prejudge or to label or to even stereotype.
Eddie Robinson: Sometimes I think that that’s even the label of the bisexuality movement. But, you know, talk to us about the defining masculinity for oneself.
R.K. Russell: Yes. I think it’s very important for all people, for men, women, non binary people, LGBTQ plus people, uh, straight or heteronormative people, because masculinity, I also want to say masculinity in and of itself is not the problem, in and of itself is not toxic, that it can be something that is obviously a positive that is inherent in someone.
R.K. Russell: And that too much of anything can become toxic, you know, when, when, when used to extremes or when used to shut off other parts of the human experience or human expression, I think that is when we get into the realm of toxic masculinity. But for me, it’s important for people to define masculinity because it shows up differently for all of us.
R.K. Russell: It feels inherent differently for all of us. There are things through the human experience that come from creation that come from us and our soul and the things we are drawn to in the in the talents and abilities we have and how we inherently carry. And there are things that are curation, things that we see and that feel representative of us or feel familiar or we want or we want to obtain and we embody.
R.K. Russell: And it’s, it’s just important to always check and make sure that you’re doing things there where those secants are in harmony, where the things that you create and the curation that you bring, the personality, the traits, the things you embody are not at odds with each other. So there’s a harmony within, and if that’s being quote unquote hyper masculine or whatever it is, or, you know, or if that’s being hyper feminine, or if there’s.
R.K. Russell: Or if it fluctuates, that’s fine. As long as it is in with, with harmony within yourself, that’s perfectly fine. You know, I think for me, there’s, there’s the temperature check of, you know, if someone is to tell me that I am exhibiting toxic masculinity or on the opposite end of that spectrum, internalized homophobia, for me, it’s a temper check because I do want to make sure that I’m not, because like I said, if we all grew up here in America.
R.K. Russell: We were all subjected to both of those things.
Eddie Robinson: That’s right.
R.K. Russell: You know, and you know, as long as this isn’t coming from a place of fear, shame, judgment, you know, if I don’t want to do something because I truly it’s just not coming from a place of curation, I have no desire to curate it as well. That’s perfectly fine.
R.K. Russell: And you know, you can’t explain that to everybody all the time. I’ve also stopped trying to define like it’s like you said, it’s defining masculinity for myself, not redefining and explaining it to everyone I come encounter with. That’s, that’s not. That’s, that’s not my job. It’s not my job to explain my existence to you.
R.K. Russell: It’s not my job to educate you on who I am, on what the R.K. Russell experience is. It’s my job to be true to myself, to be true to those like me and those that have gotten me to this point and to continue to uplift other people, um, both like me and unlike me. So.
Eddie Robinson: You know, your name, Ryan, interestingly, you know, uh, your mother named you Ryan in an effort to be racially.
Eddie Robinson: ambiguous, you know, what were your thoughts after learning the rationale?
R.K. Russell: Oh my God. It’s funny because that’s kind of why I don’t like that first name. Like I don’t go by that name. No one really calls me that other than like, you know, people where I grew up with just because. It, it, it did its job to too far of a respect for me.
R.K. Russell: Like I was a young kid and they were like, you know, they’re doing attendance and they say Ryan and five people’s hands and I’m kind of, I might be the only Black Ryan at that point. Like there’s just so many, I was like, Oh, this feels too, this was too like communal, like I was like, Oh, this, this is, this is not for me.
R.K. Russell: It just, I did. I never really connected with it. I don’t even think it was for that reason. Um. But maybe, maybe, I honestly, doing that temperature check, it might have been, you know, them saying Ryan and all of us raising our hand and me not seeing anyone that looked like me and being like, oh, this doesn’t feel…
R.K. Russell: This doesn’t feel like, like me. Um, but I get it too. You know, I, especially when we moved to Texas and I saw them things when I would get on phone conversations with people and speak the way that I speak and say that my name is, is that name? Um, the reactions were different than when people just saw me.
R.K. Russell: In person. So it made sense where it came from. In my mind, I feel sad that a young woman at 20, a young Black, single mom at 20 had to even make a decision like that in terms of something that should be so personal and so intimate as like picking your kid’s name. Wow.
Eddie Robinson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I went through the same thing, you know, as you know, trying to figure out what was going on with what I was going to name my son.
Eddie Robinson: In the introduction, you noted that when the ESPN news story broke about you coming out as bisexual. There were some notable silences from people in your life. Yeah. Who was the most notable silent response and how did it affect you in that moment?
R.K. Russell: The most notable, I’m like, goodness, that’s a good question.
R.K. Russell: I would say just probably some family. And I think it’s just because they were, it’s just so different. You know, it’s a process. For all of us, especially the more intimate, I think, you know, a person that’s coming out, the more intimate you kind of take their own, um, process and identity and in the, your shift of perspective when it comes to them, I think it’s easy when I’m a face and a name on Instagram to be like, you know, to just double tap and yes, queen and comment and live your life, you know, because your, your interaction with me is brief, but when you’ve had, when you’ve experienced me or when we’ve had life experiences together, you.
R.K. Russell: Um, Inherently as a human, you kind of dive through all those things. You’re like, okay, well, did he want to tell me then? Was there reasons he wasn’t telling me then? Does that change? Did I say, you know, I think there was also a lot of second hand, like, panic of, like, did I say anything wrong? You know, did I, did I create in a healthy environment for him where he felt like he couldn’t, you know, there, there’s, you know, it’s a, this is my buzzword for this podcast.
R.K. Russell: It’s a temperature check for people where they need to go back and they need to, to To see what they said, see our relationship, um, with this kind of different lens and a different perspective, you know, a lot of people came around. I went back to Thanksgiving with my partner at that time and encountered a lot of family people who wouldn’t normally come to Thanksgiving.
R.K. Russell: We’re making a point to come by and to see me and to see us and into to speak and just give it up and respect and appreciation. So noble silence, I’d say it would definitely be from certain family. And at the time, like I said, things kind of sting, but I’m always the person where, like, the emotions don’t dictate the logic.
R.K. Russell: Like, I logically understood it. Um, I was like, this is how I feel, and I’m gonna work through it as they’re also working through their own thing.
Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie robinson and you’re listening to I SEE U. We’re chatting with former NFL player, social justice advocate and author R.K. Russell. His book, The Yards Between Us, a memoir of life, love and football is available now and published by Anscape Books.
Eddie Robinson: I’m curious to get your thoughts on interracial relationships and how that’s impacted. Your world for the past four years. I would have imagined that you guys have been together Ups, downs, pros, cons, go.
R.K. Russell: Yeah. I would say early on, especially in coming out, we, as a couple experienced more, I guess, backlash about us being interracial than us being of same sex, same gender, which was a little shocking that it was more than the other.
R.K. Russell: But it wasn’t shocking to me because I’m like, Oh, I, you know, racism is something I deal with on a daily basis, but it also, it, it, it put into perspective the, the causes and the fights and, and the, the, the things that we wanted to address together. Like I said, whether it be in our home with our family or whether it be outwardly facing as public figures or me as a sports figure, you know, their interracial marriages.
R.K. Russell: Not even a hundred years old is something that gets brought up in conversation about being taken away at moments of times, which is, which is wild to me to think, but once again, like I said, being born in America as a Black man, um, people exist, exhibiting any type of racial unrest or discrimination or anything.
R.K. Russell: It’s not surprising to me, you know, my, my family also there, there’s a fear of, I believe of us, of Black people being taken out of Black spaces and out of Black films, out of Black culture. And then not giving back or not, not, you know, reciprocating to our communities, to our families, you know, so there was that initial thing where my family didn’t want to see me and to make sure that I hadn’t lost my head in that sense, you know, because, you know, it, it, it, who you partner with does not make you racist.
R.K. Russell: It also doesn’t make you, um, pro Black or Black supporting or, or, or any of that, you know, it is about the decisions you make. It is about the values you hold in your heart and the actions that you visibly take to, um, uplift. For me, uplift the Black community in all minority communities. So it’s, it’s, it’s something that we’ve addressed together as partners.
R.K. Russell: It’s something that we continue to address and we continue to alleviate. But to me, an interracial love is not anti-Black in any way or shape or form. It’s just about two people who found love and compassion in each other as human beings. And race is something that we deal with because it is something that negatively affects so many people, but it’s not something that affects our relationship between him and I.
Eddie Robinson: Of all the accomplishments you’ve made in your life, the many people you’ve inspired, those whose lives you’ve touched, and will continue to touch moving forward with such an amazing memoir, the challenges, the triumphs you’ve experienced, the highs and lows of being part of the National Football League, As a man, a man who’s bisexual, a writer, an advocate for gay rights, what lessons have you learned about yourself thus far?
R.K. Russell: Oh my gosh. Uh, I think I’m constantly reminded about how much of an emotional person I am. I think before it was you, I saw that as like a negative thing. I think now I see it as just someone who is fully open to the spectrum of emotion in, in this life and in human experience. So it was high. Levels of empathy, and it’s seen as a superpower because to be able to, we will not always be able to understand situations that you and I have gone through separately, will not always be able to understand the obstacles and the challenges, but there are a lot more feelings, uh, I think that humans share, there are a lot more feelings, I think that are true and genuine, regardless of the situations.
R.K. Russell: The situations might seem very different, but the feelings can be so similar and so in so much of the same. So, so I’ve, I’ve realized that being an emotional person is my superpower. It allows me to write the way I write, communicate the way I communicate, love and respect the people the way I love and respect them.
R.K. Russell: And that’s a part of my experience. And I also am constantly reminded post coming out that there is always knowledge and education to be learned. When I came out in 2019, I was not the LGBTQ plus advocate that I am today. I was not the, the, the Black and pro Black activist that I am today. And that is really where the education began for me.
R.K. Russell: And it is a reminder that I will never know all the answers, that there will always be someone else. To come and to educate me and to open my eyes to different experiences and horizons and different ways to have the conversation and different actions to take to shift the status quo of our country into against bigotry.
R.K. Russell: So, so I think those have been, have been the two things. Those are things most present. Um, now and moving forward and hopefully, you know, when this is out, I can look back and listen to it and also have this audio reminder.
Eddie Robinson: His powerful memoirs entitled the yards between us, former NFL player, acclaimed writer, advocate.
Eddie Robinson: R.K. Russell. R.K., thank you for being vulnerable. Thank you for being honest. Thank you for being an inspiration to so many people and individuals. And thank you for being a guest on I SEE U.
R.K. Russell: Of course. Thank you for having me. I appreciate you.
Eddie Robinson: Our team includes Technical Director Todd Hulslander, Producer Laura Walker, Editors Mark DiClaudio and Jonmitchell Goode. I SEE U is a production of Houston Public Media. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter. And subscribe to our podcast wherever you listen and download your favorite shows. I’m your host and executive producer, Eddie Robinson.
Eddie Robinson: And I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time.