Imagine being asked a question about your sexual orientation in a job interview, even if it happens to violate every labor hiring law on the books. And you knew damn well the answer your prospective employer, one of just 32 companies in the world paying top dollar for your specific skills, wanted to hear.
If you didn’t – gulp – like girls, would you lie for the gig?
You’d have to lie, Dave Kopay says. 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 month’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 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, says Kopay, 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 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. When fans and readers wrote vitriolic hate mail to the paper, saying it wasn’t possible that any rough-and-tumble NFL player could be gay, Kopay got a hold of Lynn Rosellini, the writer, and confided in her: He was a closeted homosexual, lonely and in emotional pain for most of his career.
Oh, Kopay also was a rugged running back who picked up blitz packages and drilled oncoming rushers harder than almost any other back during his era – a pro’s pro who happened to be gay.
The story led to his 1977 book, The David Kopay Story: An Extraordinary Self-Revelation.
Kopay lent me one of his last hard-copy originals about a year ago when I met him. The moment in the book when he tells his father he is gay is absolutely soul-crushing.
In 2011, the magazine Outsports ranked Kopay’s coming-out No. 1 among its 100 most important moments in gay sports history. Billie Jean King didn’t come out until years later, but she told Kopay how much his book had helped her with her journey.
You know where he was in wee hours of June 28, 1969, the night of the Stonewall riots? At an underground gay bar in Baltimore, with Jerry Smith. I remember us talking about it on the way home, thinking even then what a moment that was, Kopay says.
He actually met Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to office in California. You know what he told me? Kopay says. He puts his arm around me and says, Come on, Dave, you know you don’t have what it takes to be a professional fairy.’ I couldn’t stop laughing.
HBO’s Real Sports profiled Orlando Cruz, an openly gay boxer, last year in a piece that became more about modern-day acceptance than possible career risk or ruin. In fact, during the usual postmortem, host Bryant Gumbel asked the reporter, Jon Frankel, a salient question: Do we now live in such progressive times that major corporate sponsors would endorse the first player in one of the four big-revenue North American sports – the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball – to come out during his career? Yes, Frankel said.
Think about that, the idea that societal acceptance could have less to do with a current athlete coming out than better economic opportunities – that being an all-star and gay actually might make a player more marketable. Unfathomable, right?
I do buy that, Kopay says. Now, some people will think that’s crazy with an environment where gay slurs are still OK in some places and you have NFL team officials asking idiotic crap like they asked that kid last week. And you still have terribly unaware people like the kid from San Francisco (Chris Culliver) that had to learn. But I could see it happening.
Still, the pressure is so enormous. You can’t be Superman and do everything – it’s hard enough just to keep your job on a team. And the media crush after it happens is going to be a distraction for that player and that team at the start. But they’ll all get through it.
I think the public is ready. I think most athletes are ready. Mostly, they deserve to be there. It would take someone who could handle anything, who has extraordinary composure.
It would take the kind of person who could tell a potential employer that his interest in girls doesn’t have anything to do with his ability to play the game.