“You’d have to lie,” Dave Kopay said. “Otherwise, there is a good chance you’d never have an NFL career.”
Kopay is the first major-team-sport athlete to tell the world he is gay. He came out in 1975 after he played for Vince Lombardi with the Washington Redskins as well as for four other teams in nine NFL seasons. Thirty-eight years later, he sighs over the telephone from his home in Pasadena, Calif., “It’s sad we’re even here now talking about this, isn’t it?”
It’s beyond sad. It’s stupid and criminal that after Kopay’s pioneering moment four decades ago, a former University of Colorado tight end named Nick Kasa had to endure an inquiry at last week’s NFL combine that began, “Do you like girls?”
Or that — according to the NFL Network’s Albert Breer — some team executives are obsessed with knowing whether or not Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is gay in the wake of a Internet girlfriend hoax perpetrated on Te’o that he later lied about.
“Do you like girls?”
“I suppose you want to try and throw someone off and see how they respond, but it’s not their business to ask that question,” said Kopay, now 70. “And if they think they have the right to ask any question they want, they should know that their future players also have the right to lie to their faces — especially if they think they’re going to be discriminated against. . . .
“Look, I get it: It probably gives [NFL teams] major pause, because having the first openly gay player in the locker room is going to cause a little initial uneasiness. But there is uneasiness about a lot of things, and we need to get over it. It’s time.”
After Kopay’s bombshell, fewer than a half-dozen former major team-sport athletes have come out, including baseball’s Billy Bean and the NBA’s John Amaechi. No one has deigned to risk his livelihood while currently playing. But Kopay’s right: It’s time.
Charles Barkley told me a year ago that it’s ridiculous to poll players about what it would be like to have a gay teammate, primarily because they already know the answer.
“First of all, every player has played with gay guys,” Barkley said, adding that he knows he played with gay teammates on at least two NBA teams. “It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say: ‘Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.’ I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play.”
When I originally relayed that quote to Kopay, he laughed uproariously.
Kopay came out in 1975 not because he wanted to make history; he was angry. He had read a Washington Star story about the hardships of being gay in sports. He knew the NFL player anonymously quoted was Jerry Smith, his former Redskins teammate with whom Kopay once had a sexual encounter. (Yes, Burgundy and Gold faithful, two of Lombardi’s grittiest, durable players in his one season in Washington had a dalliance. Get over it.)