Michael Sam, Missouris All-American lineman and a prime pick for the NFL draft, has come forth to discuss his homosexuality. The question has never been whether there are gay men playing in the NFL. There have always been gay football players; they just lived in fear of losing their careers if their sexual orientation were made public. The question has always been how the league would deal with the subject. In the past, the answer has always been not very well; in fact, not at all.
Back in late 1975, The Washington Star ran a series about gays in sports. It was a courageous series. The Redskins All-Pro tight end Jerry Smith gave a detailed interview about the agony of living a double life as the macho football hero while knowing secretly he was homosexual. There was only one problem with the series in general and Smiths interview in particular: Nobody allowed his or her name to be used. And the groundbreaking series was roundly ignored.
That was when David Kopay, a 10-year NFL veteran, stepped into the picture. Well, at least I can do that, he thought when he read the anonymous interview with his old friend and first love. People had speculated about gays in the NFL for years, and finally Kopay confirmed it. One sportswriter said: Just by standing still and saying who he was, Kopay has reaped a whirlwind.
Although Kopays playing days were over, it is wrong to assume there were no risks involved. By publicly discussing his homosexuality, Kopay knew he was closing the door on any kind of sports-related job. Until his recent retirement, he worked as a salesman in his uncles floor-covering store in Los Angeles.
In December 1975, the editor of the series was fearful as he led Kopay across the Stars newsroom to see an advance copy of the front-page interview to be published the next day. He kept asking if Kopay were sure, did he fully understand the consequences of what he was doing. All Kopay could feel was relief. A lifetime of guilt and shame was suddenly lifted from his shoulders. It was game time, he would say later, the national anthem was playing. And he would eventually settle in with no regrets as an elder statesman of the gay-rights movement.
I read the Kopay interview, and we immediately began work on our book, The David Kopay Story. It was a painful process for him. I insisted he go back and confront the family members who had cursed and disowned him and his former teammates. In May of that year, he was elected captain of the alumni team at the University of Washingtons annual varsity-alumni game, the first game played in the King Dome. But they held the coin toss off the field because they were afraid somebody might take a shot at Kopay, as happened in Patricia Nell Warrens novel, The Front Runner.
I sat high in the stands, dreading the worst, only to join in with a standing ovation as Kopay ran onto the field. Our book would be on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two months in 1978, and 30,000 people wrote to say the book had changed their lives. Former San Diego Charger Esera Tuaolo said on Good Morning, America he was so tortured by his double life, he was ready to kill himself. He held up a copy of The David Kopay Story and said, This book saved my life.
In many ways, Kopay and I were cultural opposites. He was a star player in several sports. I played piano and never made a team. But, through our shared experiences, we forged a friendship that endures to this day.
The men Kopay had worked with in the NFL were actually proud of what he had done. Every single one of them had gone through some sort of personal crisis during and after their playing years. Moreover, I would learn that behind the scenes everybody knew that certain players were gay and that it was no big deal to the other players.
Vince Lombardi, surely the epitome of the macho image in pro sports, was especially tolerant of gays on his team. In fact, Lombardis general manager and information director were both actively homosexual. Lombardi had no problem knowing about Jerry Smith or Kopay. His only problem with Kopay was when he dropped a pass in a crucial game. Lombardi never forgave him. All that mattered to Lombardi was how they played the game.
The general manager told me there was only one time Lombardi got upset about a players being gay, and that was because he kept getting arrested in the mens room in Layfayette Park. Lombardi fired him not because he was gay but because he had publicly embarrassed the team.
In other words, it was always the box office, the public image and ticket sales that ruled the day. And, I suspect, that will be what ultimately decides whether the NFLs corporate owners are as brave as young Michael Sam. Lets hope they face the reality that attitudes about gays in America have changed dramatically. Drafting Sam wont hurt the box office and might just help the team win some games. As Lombardi said so well, winning is not the most important thing, its the only thing.
Perry Deane Young of Chapel Hill is an author of nine books, including The David Kopay Story.