Another athlete revealed his sexuality Wednesday night. Maybe you missed Chip Sarafin’s pioneering moment at Arizona State, where the backup offensive lineman and fifth-year senior became the first active college football player to say he’s gay.
So many historic firsts lately, so much unforeseen, across-the-board acceptance, the news was almost buried, as if Sarafin had instead declared, “I’m . . . straight.”
“Coming-Out Party” certainly will never take on such a literal meaning in North American sports as it has the past 18 months.
“I was kind of hoping for someone a little more prominent, a big star,” Dave Kopay half-joked over the telephone from his home in Pasadena, Calif., late Wednesday. “And I’m sure most people are reading that right now, thinking, ‘I never heard of Dave Kopay before he told everyone he was gay either.’ ”
When we last spoke at length, Kopay was still the voice in the wilderness — the first athlete from a major-revenue team sport to tell the world he is gay. He did it in 1975, after his nine-year, five-team (including two years in Washington) NFL career ended.
“It’s time,” he said just 17 months ago, keenly aware that nearly 40 years since his own revelation not a single active player in a major-revenue North American team sport deigned to publicly come out and risk his livelihood.
That was two months before Jason Collins would become so much more than an NBA journeyman center, less than a year before the St. Louis Rams plucked an openly gay Michael Sam out of Missouri in the NFL draft and 13 months before Massachusetts’s Derrick Gordon became the first big-school men’s college basketball player to come out publicly. (None of which, by the way, should obscure Brittney Griner’s courage to come out.)
Today, Kopay is becoming a one-man cottage industry, the go-to gay guy for all athletes who come out.
The NFL Network interviewed him about the greatest tight end in Washington history, Jerry Smith, who died of AIDS and with whom Kopay had an affair while both played for Vince Lombardi.
“The BBC, the Canadian Broadcast Network, the Seattle Times — I’m like a clearing house now. I’ve never got recycled more in my life,” he said, laughing. “Ah well, it gives me purpose.”
The Hollywood Reporter quoted Kopay recently, saying he wouldn’t have shown the same public display of affection Sam did on national television with his boyfriend on draft night. But then, he added, it’s his life and Kopay comes from a different generation.
His mother turns 100 on Sept. 10. Marguerite Kopay was moved from her home in Folsom, Calif., into an assisted living home by her son recently. He shows her the articles from Outsports and other publications about gay athletes coming out. “She listens now,” he said. “She doesn’t condemn as much as she used to. It’s amazing. Okay, she’s still racist and homophobic. But I can actually talk to her about this now. Who would have even imagined that?’
He still says, “It’s time,” too, though now Kopay means it’s time for a genuine star to come out and move the needle even further.
“It’s absolutely time,” he added. “Look at the wider acceptance now happening. The sports world can’t agree on . . . anything, okay. And they almost unanimously agree on this issue, even more so than society in general agrees on it. I don’t want to just see it for selfish reasons; I want to see it because if there is one thing about the closet, it’s almost an individual layer of covers that can smother people in ways you have no idea. Aren’t they seeing the kind of reception a guy like Wade Davis gets?”
Davis, who lasted almost all of training camp in Ashburn in 2004 before he was injured and released, came out in 2012. He is now the executive director for the You Can Play Project, whose main goal is to eradicate homophobia in pro sports.
In a phone conversation Thursday afternoon, Davis agreed with Kopay that a big name would be important but said he wants to see what happens when “someone with a more effeminate gender expression comes out.”
“Now will that athlete be accepted?” Davis said. “Right now the guys who have come out are prototypical masculine types. What about the guy who doesn’t blend in? That speaks less about the homophobia than the sexism in sports that still exists.”
Tolerant, forgiving, Davis is a godsend for his times. He was actually happy to hear NFL analyst and former coach Tony Dungy’s ill-advised comments about not taking a chance on a player like Sam because of possible distractions, of which there have been none thus far in St. Louis.
“We both need to educate ourselves on the other side,” he said. “We can’t take it for granted we are having these conversations. Hearing Tony Dungy helps me better understand my mother, who from 3 years old on was taught to feel a certain way about gay people. I needed to empathize with where she was coming from.”
Before we hung up, Davis also explained why we need to acknowledge this moment, however small it was received nationally, for a young man like Edward “Chip” Sarafin.
Davis used his one training camp in Washington to elaborate. He said he tells this story often in talks he gives to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids and adults.
“I’m sitting there next to Champ [Bailey] in the film room, and Champ and one of the coaches is talking about wasted motion — how many steps and how much time you lose coming out of your backpedal as a DB,” he said. “I’m watching myself at that exact moment on film, and I’m thinking, ‘You look so gay. You’re running gay.’ I was angry at myself that I looked gay.”
“And it dawned on me in that moment: wasted motion. The fact that I could never just focus on football, that I was so hyper-vigilant about not letting anyone know I was gay, it was a full-time job.
“When you’re just talkin’ . . . with the guys, you can hide from it. But there were times like that when the noise became so deafening in my own head I couldn’t stand it. So when people ask why is it important that more athletes keep coming out, whether they’re stars or not. Why? So they can get the wasted motion out of their lives.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.