This is a historic week for the NFL and major sports. Carl Nassib of the Raiders is the first active NFL player to openly come out as gay. The NFL has always had gay players, but no active ones have had the courage to come out during their careers. (Kwame Brown, formerly of the Raiders and 49ers came out, only because he was outed in a police report for beating up his boyfriend in a very public incident. That’s not coming out; rather, getting “outed” for bad behavior.) Journeyman running back Dave Kopay was the first NFL player to reveal his homosexuality in 1975, three years after he retired.
The NFL has always had gay players, but no active ones have had the courage to come out during their careers.
This makes it appropriate to remember the great Coach Vince Lombardi as the first NFL coach to support gay rights of players! You read that right. When the Kopay of the erstwhile Washington Redskins confessed his orientation to Lombardi in 1969, Vince conveyed it to his coaching staff, and said, “If I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you'll be out of here before your ass hits the ground." Though Lombardi was a devout Catholic and seminary dropout, he had a brother Hal who was gay. He was also one of the most fiercely ANTI-racist coaches of any time. If a hotel, restaurant or club wouldn’t serve his black players, the place was off limits to ALL team members.
When he played for the Detroit Lions in 1968, Kopay’s best friend was the legendary film and TV star Alex Karras, who was a perennial All-Pro defensive lineman. It’s no irony that Karras played James Garner’s gay bodyguard, Mr. Bernstein, in the Blake Edwards film Victor/Victoria, though he was not gay. One of Kopay’s Washington teammates was the All-NFL tight end Jerry Smith, who was also gay, as was running back Ray McDonald. Lombardi didn’t care about a man’s race, politics or sexuality – he was a “liberal Democrat” in every sense of the word. All that mattered was if a guy could play and meet his famous threshold for dedication. Smith died of AIDS in 1986 without ever revealing his sexuality, out of fear it would ruin his life. He and Kopay had a brief stage of intimacy while they were teammates.
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Smith held the NFL records for a tight end with 60 touchdown receptions, which lasted until Shannon Sharpe broke it, He has a case for the NFL Hall of Fame on the basis of his football accomplishments alone. But he was never considered because of you know what.
So Nassib is to be commended for his courage and self-security. Of course, when you’re 6’ 7” and weigh 275 with 3 years of NFL experience, after being a 2nd team All-American at Penn State, it is easier than say, an undersized high school running back in the South in the 1970’s. I’m not gay, but endured more than my share of abuse for being the only Jewish player for two years on my high school team.
There were gay guys on that team, and the closet was shut tight on them at the time. Some of my high school and college sports teammates have come out since we played together.* That doesn't change any experiences or perspectives, but illustrates a growing acceptance of the rainbow of humanity. All that should matter is that you can play, if you have the skill and passion for a game.
H. Scott Prosterman
*I played football and ran track in high school, and played basketball and ran track in college.