In the fall of 1997, when celebrity comings-out were becoming commonplace, whether it was Elton John or Ellen De Generes, it occurred to me that the sports world still remained pretty mum, pretty closeted. And nowhere more so than in the National Football League. So I called Dave Kopay, at the time one of two NFL players ever to come out (both after they were out of football), to see what he had to say on the subject. Kopay was a trailblazer, talking openly about his sexuality in the mid-1970s, before even Elton was ready to. As you’ll see in the paragraphs that follow, Kopay was (and remains) a kind man and an agreeable interview, but in no way was he happily reconciled to his lot.
One great postscript... A few months after this article ran, Kopay gave an interview to the Advocate in which he related the following story: “In the GQ article, I was quoted, accurately, saying ‘Would I do Troy Aikman on Sunset Strip? Yes! That would be my fantasy!’ Well, a couple of days after the article was published, I was flying to Dallas for a buying trip or something. Into the terminal in L.A. comes Troy Aikman. We both got sidetracked and were the last people on the plane. I wanted to introduce myself, but he was being bothered by kids. He was being gracious but obviously wanted privacy. He is as gorgeous in person as he is on TV. So I went up to him and said, ‘My name is Dave Kopay, and I used to play pro ball.’ Then I told him what I said in the article. I said, ‘I don't apologize for what I said, but I do apologize for it if it caused you pain.’ He just smiled and said, ‘Dave, don’t worry about it. I look forward to reading it.’”
There’s a whiff of comic novelty to meeting a gay football player. Dave Kopay’s apartment in Los Angeles has the requisite ephemera of a finished sports career: the team photos, the plaques, the display of helmets over the big-screen TV, one for each team he played for—the San Francisco 49ers, the Detroit Lions, the Washington Redskins and the Green Bay Packers. (Unrepresented for some reason are the New Orleans Saints, with whom he spent one season.) But in the course of the grand tour, a bedroom cabinet is opened to reveal a poster of meat boys in underwear, and the kitchen bulletin board is a collage of photos Kopay and male friends romping nude or nearly nude by the pool outside his weekend house in Palm Desert. Somewhere in the collage is a dorsal-view portrait, clipped from a magazine, of an unclothed male rock climber.
“Who’s that?” I ask.
“Oh, that’s just a butt I liked,” he says.
Twenty years ago, Kopay was a sociological phenomenon, the first National Football League player, active or retired, ever to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality. Today he is a 55-year-old flooring salesman at Linoleum City, a store in Hollywood whose catchphrase is “Sears is next to us.” He’s a nice guy, with a mirthful, gabby way about him—“Would I do Troy Aikman on Sunset Strip?” he mused, unbidden, the first time we ever spoke on the telephone, answering, “Yes! That would be my fantasy!”—but he’s also prone to fits of pique where his body goes taut with frustration and anger and there’s just no consoling him. What causes these fits is not his current station in life, which is more edifying and lucrative than it sounds, but the nagging idea that to this day it’s still pretty much just him: “lonely old me,” as he rails in one of his paroxysmal moments, “Dave Kopay–the-gay-football-player.”
Since he took his great leap, he has been joined in the annals of known gay football pros by precisely two people: his old Redskins teammate Jerry Smith, an all-pro tight end who went to his grave without publicly disclosing his sexual orientation but whose death from AIDS in 1986 occasioned posthumous discussion of his homosexuality, and a former guard with the New York Giants named Roy Simmons, who outed himself on Donahue in 1992, nine years after he left football, and promptly disappeared from public view.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Everywhere else in the culture, it seems, there’s a rah-rah gay consciousness afoot: Last autumn, at the same time the vice president’s praise of Ellen was catching more flak for being an act of desperate opportunism than for being an endorsement of sexual deviance, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement imploring parents not to turn out their gay sons and daughters, because “God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is a homosexual.” In & Out was the nation’s leading film comedy; Elton John was cracking self-twitting queer jokes on Leno. By these measures, you’d expect Kopay to be on Nike billboards today, a totem of cool, as fashionable to praise for barrier breaking as Jackie Robinson. You’d expect somber speeches at father-and-son banquets about how tormented double lives have been consolidated into full-scholarship single ones because twenty years ago a courageous soul by the name of Dave Kopay demonstrated that being gay and a gamer were not mutually exclusive. You’d expect some team’s badass corps of defensive backs to be known as “the Lavender Posse.”
In the NFL, though, it remains inviolably 1957: Queers just aren’t talked about, which means Kopay isn’t talked about, which means a whole new generation has come up never knowing that there was this gay guy who played football. It’s as if enough time has elapsed without another such incident that the whole Kopay saga has been deemed erasable, like points on a driver’s license—whatever little spore of gay positivity he might have implanted in the NFL’s mind-set has been eradicated. To wit:
–At last spring’s predraft scouting combine, Jim Druckenmiller, the star quarterback of Virginia Tech, blithely informed reporters that he lifts weights with his offensive linemen because “I think it gives them a feeling that I’m not a little pansy back there in the pocket.” (Druckenmiller now backs up Steve Young in, of all places, San Francisco.)
–Such is Barry Switzer’s animus toward Troy Aikman that, according to the sportswriter Skip Bayless’s recent book, Hellbent: The Crazy Truth About the “Win or Else” Dallas Cowboys, the coach has implored reporters to out the quarterback, believing that that would sabotage Aikman’s career. (Aikman, for the record, insists he is heterosexual.) “[Switzer] and his compadres came to me and other media people,” Bayless told The Advocate, “saying, ‘Why don’t you have the courage to stand up and tell the truth about this guy,’ as in, he’s gay.”
–Last August, at the Washington Redskins’ training camp, Stephen Davis, a running back, taunted Michael Westbrook, a wide receiver, with what the Washington Post later referred to as “a homosexual reference.” Westbrook, a young player with a reputation for volatility, became enraged and showered punches upon Davis, leaving him with multiple bruises and an eye swollen shut. A clip of the attack aired repeatedly on the local news, Rodney King–style, and Westbrook was roundly condemned, forced to apologize and pay a $50,000 fine. Davis, on the other hand, was praised for the gracious way he accepted Westbrook’s apology and was lauded by teammates and the press as a “gentleman” with “class.” Lost, somehow, in all this was the original offense—that Davis had called Westbrook a “fuckin’ faggot.”
You could be forgiven for having supposed in the late ’70s that the late ’90s would turn out differently for Dave Kopay. He was a demicelebrity back then, crisscrossing the country to make speeches, popping up on The David Susskind Show and Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow, appearing in bookstores to sign copies of his bestselling autobiography, The David Kopay Story: An Extraordinary Self-Revelation. When he settled in San Francisco after his book tour ended, he was the toast of the Castro district, embraced by the city’s emergent gay glitterati. Armistead Maupin, the author of Tales of the City, put him up in a spare room; Randy Shilts, the journalist, and Harvey Milk, the celebrated city supervisor, became his friends.
“Without sounding pompous, we were part of a new breed—not only openly gay and well-known but well-known for being openly gay,” says Maupin. “I loved walking into bars with Dave, because you could watch every head turn. He was a major babe and a hero to every gay person.”
Kopay’s lasting achievement, in fact, is the pride he swelled within the gay subculture, even among men who, like Maupin, have “a chemical aversion to sports.” In this regard, he remains a living legend, marching in pride parades, being invited to administer the athletes’ oath at the Gay Games, eliciting letters of cathartic unburdening from closeted teen jocks. But in the mainstream, Kopay is a marginal figure—at best, a dial-a-quote source for journalists writing about “gays in sports”; at worst, the correct response to question number four in the November 14, 1996 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Cheese Quiz”: “Who was the former Packer player who declared in his autobiography that he was gay?”
This is what it has all come to: literally, the answer to a trivia question.
“Jesus, will you look at that? I can’t stand that crap!” We’re watching a 49ers-Panthers game, and, as is often the case these days, a bunch of players are celebrating steroidally, jiggling their limbs like jackhammers because one of them has made a routine tackle on a kickoff return. Kopay is repulsed: “If you’re a real man, you act like you’re used to success.”
He has the jutted slab features of the Paleozoic NFL, when the game was populated by Nagurskis and Robustellis, yet his gray-blond hair is styled into a center-parted salon quiff, and he looks at least ten years younger than his age—not quite in playing shape, but gym-fit. Kopay was a journeyman but a good one: an undersized running back who hung on for ten years in the league because he was a capable backup, an excellent blocker and a kamikaze on kickoff coverage—a “special teams demon,” in sportswriterese. John Brodie, the 49ers’ star quarterback of the ’60s, nicknamed him “Psyche” for his lunatic intensity on the field. Vince Lombardi, who coached Kopay in the former’s last-hurrah season with the Redskins, called him “Attaboy Dave.”
Psyche Attaboy Dave is glad to have my company: He has only one buddy interested enough in sports to come over and watch football with him—which is a shame, because he’s completely up on the game and provides TV-worthy color commentary on the action; he seems familiar with the roster and front-office personnel of every team. Pretzels have been set out, and in lieu of beer we’re drinking some Cabernet from the Clos du Bois winery—one of the official sponsors of the October ’96 Candlelight March on Washington, you know. “I can’t tell you who’s gay here,” he says, surveying the game on TV. “I’ve heard rumors, and I’m sure you have. But I don’t know. People are always asking me if this player or another is gay. I always say, ‘Unless I’ve slept with him, I couldn’t tell you.’” Just the other day, it transpires, the supermarket tabloid The Globe called, asking Kopay to spill whatever her knows about closeted football homosexuals. He told them to shove it.
Our conversation, really more like a Kopay monologue with occasionally interjections, toggles herky-jerkily between the poles of his identity: He’s been out to see the AIDS quit in D.C. every year they’ve shown it; he thinks George Allen, who cut him from the Redskins, was a despicable man. He’ll be going up to San Francisco soon to attend a benefit for the city’s new Gay and Lesbian Community Center; he’ll be going up to Seattle soon to attend the University of Washington’s annual Big Apple game against Washington State (he was cocaptain of the Huskies’ ’64 Rose Bowl team). He was thrilled to meet Ian McKellen at a recent function; he can’t get over how Eddie Murray is still a placekicker in the NFL—God, the guy must be like, 50.
He’s got some activist-type ideas, too. His NFL pension has just kicked in, and he’s aware of this arrangement you can make where you set aside part of your annuity for your spouse to collect after your death. “So why couldn’t this benefit be adjusted for a significant other instead of a wife? I’d like to make an appointment with Mr. Upshaw”—Gene Upshaw, former Oakland Raider great and current executive director of the NFL Players Association—“to talk about this.”
Eventually, the talk wends its way around to the subject of one of his friends—a photographer who lives in New Orleans and who “was an influence on Mapplethorpe.” Before I know it, my host is dashing out of the room, returning to hand me an artful photograph of his naked self. The picture shows him seated with his legs bent in front of him, upturned thighs coyly obscuring his groin, except that his penis is peeking out, flopped on the floor.
“Clearly, you’re not shy about nudity,” I say.
“No, to me the body is a beautiful thing.”
When he says this, it kicks in that maybe the hombre skin parade on the kitchen bulletin board isn’t such a novelty. He is, afterall, a jock, with a jock’s body cultism and heightened sense of carnality—a point driven home when a muscular guy in shorts flashes across the TV screen, a shaving commercial or something, and Kopay goes, “Whoa!”
“Dave was, if anything, more identifiably jock than identifiably gay,” says Maupin, recalling their time as roomies in San Francisco. “Even his boyfriends—they were like blond trophy boyfriends, the equivalent of blonde cheerleader types.” Indeed, spending time with Kopay is like warping into a bizarre world of inverted jock norms: Substitute Rebecca Romijn for the Atra Man, a St. Pauli Girl poster for the meat boys, and we could well be in Brett Favre’s rec room.
As comings out go, none could have been purer in intent, or more unsavvy by current standards: He didn’t call a press conference; he had no book to promote, like Greg Louganis, no TV show to plug, like Ellen DeGeneres, no battalion of agents to vet his words before he uttered them. He didn’t even telephone his devoutly Catholic parents to forewarn them. “I hope it might help some people,” he said at the time, “especially younger people who are going through similar experiences and haven’t had anyone to talk to about it.”
The impetus came on December 9, 1975, when the now defunct Washington Star newspaper ran the first article of a four-part front-page series on homosexuality in sports, written by a young reporter named Lynn Rossellini. The article was accompanied by a sidebar interview with an unnamed football star who called himself “bisexual” and angrily complained that he couldn’t come out for fear of getting kicked off the team and destroying his off-season business. Kopay, two years out of the NFL and living in Washington, D.C., instantly recognized the anonymous source as Jerry Smith, with whom he had once had sex. Astonished and exhilarated—and he says, mindful of Coach Lombardi’s sage advice that a back should always “run to daylight”—Kopay felt the only right thing to do was call Rosellini and tell his story. It’s probably the only outing Lombardi ever facilitated.
“Kopay was a godsend,” says Rossellini, now a senior writer with U.S. News and World Report. “After the first article appeared, I was getting accusations of muckraking and yellow journalism for using anonymous sources. I’d spent almost three months reporting the series, trying to get someone to talk on the record. And suddenly here was someone calling me! I was stunned.”
The article ran under the headline DAVE KOPAY—OUT IN THE OPEN. It was picked up nationwide, and the blitz of talk shows and articles and indignant and euphoric letters began. The publication two years later of The David Kopay Story, written with Perry Deane Young, a protégé of Christopher Isherwood’s, touched off a second wave of interest and scrutiny. Phil Donahue booked Kopay opposite a surprisingly supportive Paul Hornung. Penthouse ran a boozy, chummy profile detailing Kopay’s attempts to arrange nightcap trysts, three-ways and four-ways, along the stops of his book tour. The New York Daily News selected Kopay to go one-on-one with Anita Bryant, the Grand Wizardess of American queer haters, in a debate headlined DO HOMOSEXUAL ATHLETES TARNISH SPORTS’ IMAGE? (Mais oui, said lacquer-haired Anita, reasoning: “If ‘Gay’ is good, then more ‘Gay’ would be better, and all ‘Gay’ would be best. And there would be no sports, no spectators, and no human life.”)
Memoirs are habitually blurbed as being “unflinchingly honest,” but The David Kopay Story is among the few that live up to the cliché. Though earnest to the point of humorlessness, the book is a painstakingly frank document of the pre-AIDS ’60s and ’70s, of free love and sexual experimentation. Kopay comes off as a confused, hunky sexual innocent to whom strange things happen; he’s like Joe Dallesandro in an Andy Warhol movie. Dave bangs a sorority girl to fit in at his fraternity at the University of Washington; Dave finds himself drunkenly, furtively conjoining with his best frat buddy in a roadside motel; Dave is conquested by a female go-go dancer who invites him back to her hotel room, where she displays an array of lubricants with which she creates “all sorts of new and strange feelings, including those from a massage of my prostate”; Dave and his girlfriend get involved in a three-way with a male aide to a conservative southern congressman (Dave is more aroused by the man); Dave discovers gay bars; Dave is given a lucrative off-season junior-executive position on the condition that he “provide certain sexual favors” to his male boss; Dave enters into a short-lived sham marriage; Dave goes to a hypnotist to try to “cure” himself of homosexuality.
The book spent ten weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, enhancing Kopay’s public profile and bank balance. But, ultimately, it failed to precipitate any widespread rethinking vis-à-vis football. The machinery of history simply wasn’t calibrated to Kopay’s advantage. The love-ins accorded today to those who come out were unheard-of, the vogue for “shocking” memoirs was twenty years away, gay issues were still largely the province of ghettoized gay publications, and major news organizations were inclined to go no further than they had to when it came to homosexuals. The Times sports columnist Dave Anderson went out on a limb to devote a whole column to the book, tacitly endorsing it by writing, “Some people will abhor it. Some people will enjoy it. Most people will try to ignore it, but they can’t. David Kopay has provided a serious sociological document.”
But the column was killed. Ostensibly, it was unsuitable for the Times’ sports pages because it dealt with a book, and books were the bailiwick of book reviewers, not sportswriters. But Anderson grants that the Kopay column is the only one he’s ever had yanked, “and I’ve written thousands of columns.”
The NFL offered no comment on The David Kopay Story, just as it had no place for Kopay once his playing career came to an end in 1973, when the Oakland Raiders cut him from their taxi squad. In the next couple of years, before his official coming out but after his homosexuality was common knowledge among former colleagues, Kopay wanted nothing more than to get into coaching—a not unreasonable goal for someone who had put ten years of service in the NFL. Alas, for all the letters he sent out, only Bart Starr, then the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, even bothered to respond with a “No, thank you.” Feelers put out to San Francisco State University’s football program proved similarly futile. “And they had a reputation had a reputation as a gay-friendly school,” Kopay says.
Pro football has had its troubles, but it has never found itself deep in crises of self-worth, like baseball, nor has it approached the overwrought crack-binge hysteria of Davids Stern’s NBA. This is because the NFL has never needed to sell itself; we fans are hooked for life. Watching football is a refuge, a form of psychic release. Even when our team loses or we’re watching two other cities’ teams, the sheer unburdening of emotion is satisfying—whether it’s sentimentalism about a Jim Plunkett/Ottis Anderson comeback, exhilaration over a Young-to-Rice completion for a TD, ursine savagery in response to a Bruce Smith sack (“Aaaaaagh!”) or vengeful glee at the sight of Jerry Jones’s cracker ass in a tizzy because his Cowboys have gotten whupped bad. There’s also a reassuring undertow of Eisenhower propriety to the NFL: the Paul Douglas and Van Heflin look-alikes who populate the front offices; the enduring usefulness of fat white men; the hearthside nuclear-family Sunday ritual. Beloved players are hailed as “throwbacks” or “workhorses” or “lunch-pail kinda guys”—terms evocative of thriving northern mill towns that no longer exist.
In this kind of environment, the NFL is not exactly champing at the bit to initiate a gay-outreach program. “In general, the gay issue is not something that concerns us. If it relates to our game, we’ll address it,” says Greg Aiello, the NFL’s director of communications. “But someone’s sexual orientation is irrelevant to our operations.”
For the cult of football, Aiello has a point. The entire game is built on tradition, which is part of its allure. It’s hard enough to deal with the advent of two-point conversions. Do we really want the whole ethos of football tampered with? Do we really want issues of social justice to impinge upon our loutish, Kramdenesque three-hour Sunday getaway from reality? Even if we are more liberal than the next guy, do we really want football players to be out and proud and loud? Wouldn’t it spoil the whole…football-y effect?
The hard answer is yes, it would, temporarily. It would become a cumbersome issue, dividing locker rooms between live-and-let-livers and God-squadders; it would elicit untold torrents of epithets from sauced fans in the stands and result in canceled endorsement contracts and ad nauseam media coverage. But just as they did in the day of Jackie Robinson, human rights trump tradition. The question is not whether sexual orientation is “relevant” to NFL operations but whether NFL operations are relevant to athletes’ sexual orientation—and clearly they are. Consider the private loathings of Jerry Smith, who was forced to maintain a double life, and who made clear to the Star’s Rosellini that it made him miserable: “I don’t think people can understand the pressure of my profession, how important it is to be discreet,” he said, his voice rising. “[My nonfootball gay friends] urge me to be more open, but I can’t be.”
So, yes, of course, football should change; Dave Kopay is on the side of the gods. And, yes, of course, when change comes, it will cause an ungodly commotion. But eventually the ruckus will die down, and football will return to being just a game again.
Kopay, then, is not naïve or wrong to try to effect change. Where he is naïve, and has been for a long time, is in failing to realize how delicately these shoals of tradition must be navigated. A compulsively candid man, he hasn’t learned the skill of holding back when it’s the politically expedient thing to do. He makes no delineation, for example, between candor about his sexuality (laudable) and candor about his sexual activity (iffy). Armistead Maupin remembers taking his parents to a cocktail party at Kopay’s after the latter had found his own apartment. “It made me proud to take my gruff old conservative father to meet a professional footballer who was just like me,” Maupin says. “But at one point, Dave took my father aside into his bedroom to show off these Polaroids he had of men and women he’s slept with. My dad walked out confused and said to me, ‘What’s the matter with that boy—doesn’t he know he’s queer?’”
So it is today: Kopay doesn’t understand why I challenge him when he says “I don’t believe in monogamy” or why my eyebrows arch upward when he talks about a three-way he was in some years ago with an affianced heterosexual couple in Florida. “I don’t look to see if people are carrying a ‘straight’ card or a ‘queer’ card,” he tells me scoldingly. “You’re asking me to define something, and I don’t like that. They liked me and I guess you could say I had a relationship with them. The gal thought it would be interesting for a boyfriend to have a different sexual experience; she set it up. I was attracted to him—he was a marine, an athlete who had been through the intensity of training. We understood each other.”
It never seems to dawn on him that this is precisely the kind of admission that would not sit well with the league office on Park Avenue.
You had to comport yourself a certain way as a gay man on the Washington Redskins. When I ask Kopay how well-known it was among the ’Skins that he and Smith were gay, he takes me over to the 1970 team portrait that hangs on his foyer wall. “Walter Rock—he knew. Vince Promuto—he knew. Len Hauss—he knew. Pat Richter knew; he’s now the athletic director of the University of Wisconsin. I’m sure Brig Owens knew—he was Jerry’s best friend on the team. Larry Brown knew. Ray Schoenke knew. They knew and had ways of making me know they knew. I was always being kidded about it by Walter Rock: Where you and Jerry going tonight? Anyplace we can go?’”
Still, the tenets of football behavior dictated that even known gay players stay closeted. Smith’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” style was the right approach; Kopay’s tentative forays into candor and flared-trouser fancy dress were the wrong approach. This is borne out by a sad, telling episode involving Jon Jaqua, a defensive back. Jaqua was a charismatic rookie who, Kopay claims, caused a sensation in the Redskins’ 1970 training camp because “his features and build were so finely drawn, he looked like a Greek statue come to life.
“You had guys looking at a young specimen, not necessarily sexually, but admiring the beauty of his body,” Kopay says. “Jaqua made the team because of that.”
One morning in camp, Jaqua, looking pale and flustered, approached Kopay and told him that Smith had hit on him the previous night. Kopay counseled Jaqua not to demonize Smith and felt compelled to disclose his own homosexuality. Jaqua was put off by Kopay’s revelation and, ironically, ended up being good friends with Smith while giving Kopay the cold shoulder.
Nearly three decades after the fact, Jaqua, who is now the executive director of the University of Oregon Foundation, says he doesn’t regret how he treated Kopay: “Jerry, once he had made that one attempt to see if I was receptive, never mentioned it again. It was easy to put that behind us. In David’s case, he wanted to talk about his problem, and I quite frankly didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to deal with the psychological aspect of his dilemma.” As Smith and Kopay dealt with their homosexuality in different ways, so did their teammates treat them differently. “Jerry no one bothered,” Jaqua says. “David was the butt of a lot of jokes. He was teased a lot. See, Jerry didn’t dress as flamboyantly as David did, and, also, he saved the other guys’ bacon. He was a star on the field—that’s what mattered.” A pause, and then his thoughts crystallize into a point: “People legitimately liked that guy.”
Kopay’s naïveté stretches far and wide, and he says he knows it. It’s not only the free ticket he grants to anyone who wants to hear about his sex life but the way he spends his time just wishing, as if wishing hard enough will get the job done. He’s fond of using phrases like “in a fantasy world” or “in an ideal world,” as in, “In a fantasy world, I would cut back on my time at work and take days off to go around and lecture kids under the aegis of the NFL. That would be ideal. I could do it at colleges, too, as a sensitivity-training type of person.”
This is fantasy-world stuff because, with that one gigantic exception in 1975, proaction has never been his thing. He’s not an activist by disposition, as he admits. Linoleum City, where he’s worked since 1981, is his life’s work. He doesn’t even solicit interviews or speaking engagements: “People just find me.”
He reserves the right, however, to get pissed off about the lack of progress. He’d like to see Gene Upshaw of the Players Association “make some kind of statement in support of gay rights, about the dignity of men and women, and that the bashing should be stopped.”
I ask him what kind of occasion Upshaw could possibly have to make such a statement.
“Doesn’t have to be an occasion—it’s what’s right. You’re being dismissive.”
Not dismissive, I say, realistic. The NFLPA, just issuing a progay statement out of the blue, of its own volition? What’s in it for them? Don’t you think you need to be proactive, that you need some sort of prepared plan, something you could fax right over to Upshaw the moment you got off the phone with him?
“Look,” says Kopay sharply, “I am not comfortable with trying to be a full-time organizer for gay rights, yet I’m totally committed to it. Harvey Milk, he said to me, ‘David, are you ready to become a professional fairy?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’” His voice shrinks; his body goes taut. “I guess that’s where I’m a failure. I’m not a professional activist. I’m not a professional fundraiser. I’m not a professional anything…a salesman, I guess. I guess you’re right. You’re right; I’m a failure. You’re right.”
A grown man in a 13-year-old’s sulk. I had come in with the assumption that because he had made his name by speaking out, he would be spokesmanlike—tidy, rehearsed, in control. By now I know better—he really isn’t a professional activist. I try to tell him that I never meant to imply that he is a failure, that all I meant was—but suddenly, paroxysmal Dave is back, breaking in furiously, momentum regained: “It seems like the only fuckin’ place discrimination is totally legitimized is with gays and lesbians! And it’s disgusting! It seems to me if the NFL is standing up for the star-spangled banner and liberty, they should stand up for gay rights! They way they stand up for black people, which they’re incredibly sensitive about!”
He regains his composure, apologizes, says it’s nothing to do with me. He starts talking about how he once narrated a film documentary on human rights that included a clip of him in his 49ers days. “It was so effective,” he says. “I’d love to go speak at schools and have a little documentary, a little highlight reel of my clips. I’d love to be able to show a film of me and Jerry. If you could just have a short segment to show I’m not just another gay activist…But NFL Films owns all the rights.”
But when asked, he says he’s never called NFL Films to request permission. “I’m afraid to, I guess,” he says. “Fear of rejection. Fear is a big part of it.”
A couple of weeks later, he sounds more upbeat. He says that rather than dealing with Upshaw, he’s been talking to some D.C. friends, activist types, about getting in touch with an attorney who might lobby the Players Association and the league on his behalf. “I’ve kind of decided I wouldn’t just go and be confrontational. It wouldn’t get anything done. I’m going to talk to this attorney. Maybe that’ll be more effective. In a fantasy world, though, you’d think the NFL would automatically take the high road.
As surely as there is a loaded revolver in some Dallas Cowboy’s glove compartment, there are gay men playing right now, this season, in the NFL. Getting one of them to talk on the record about his sexuality is one of the great unrealized scoops in journalism, kind of like that pot-o’-gold J.D. Salinger interview everyone wants. It’s a delicate business even to begin to negotiate. For a couple of years now, ESPN has been slowly, gingerly preparing a documentary on gays in sports, carefully approaching NFL figures on the rumored-to-be list. It’s such a precarious process that the principals involved at the network are reluctant to have their project mentioned in this article, lest a potential interviewee be scared off.
It will happen, the great uncloseting, only because it has to happen. When and how, though, are a mystery. “If I ever had a client who was gay, my advice would be never to discuss it unless he had a strong enough personality to handle it,” says the sports agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents, among others, the quarterbacks Troy Aikman Steve Young, and Drew Bledsoe, and who has done his share of damage control in response to gay rumors about some of his clients. “Jackie Robinson, to do what he did, had to have such a Martin Luther King-Mohandas Gandhi, turn-the-other-cheek way about him. That’s the level of provocation this athlete would have to endure. This person would have to singularly bear the burden.”
Robert Lipsyte, the Sunday sports columnist for The New York Times, offers an ingenious, entirely plausible scenario. “What could bust the whole thing,” he says, “is if a Nike athlete comes out in a Nike ad. More and more, Nike has set the agenda for social issues in sports coverage. It’s like Tiger Woods, or the Charles Barkley I’m-not-a-role-model thing, which was fucking brilliant, because it made him a role model. If you had this athlete saying, ‘Let me show you what a gay man can do…’”
But the point is, we do have this athlete. He exists. He knows what it’s like to singularly bear the burden, to pay the price of ostracization from the game he loves. He was out there ages ago, before there was such a thing as gay chic, with nothing to gain but his own sense of well-being. He may not have been the greatest, but he was good at what he did. He has survived, found a kind of happiness, even remained in love with the game in spite of everything that’s happened. So why not?
The scene: The Mojave Desert. Sunrise. There’s a speck on the vast landscape, a muscular figure in tank top and shorts, doing deep knee bends. Music from David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts plays on the sound track.
VOICE-OVER: “Don’t think I didn’t hear their cracks. I did.”
He’s close-up, doing abdominal crunches now. You can hear the grunt that accompanies each one, in sync with the following words.
Cut to a Ken Burns–style pan across an old black-and-white photo of Kopay, with the Washington Huskies, running over the University of Illinois’s Dick Butkus.
V.O.: “But I showed them when I ran over Butkus.”
Return to the Mojave. Kopay is doing push-ups. Then cut to file footage of Kopay catching a pass from Sonny Jurgensen in the flat.
V.O.: “I showed them when I connected with Jurgensen.”
Back to the Mojave. Kopay is jogging, accelerating slightly. Cut to a montage of headlines of his coming out: DAVE KOPAY—OUT IN THE OPEN, etc.
V.O.: “ I showed them that it didn’t matter what they said, that what mattered was what went on between the chalk marks. Now let me show you…”
Kopay accelerates further in the Mojave, kicking up dust, cleared for takeoff, faster and faster, music rising…
V.O.: “…what a gay man can do.”
Screen goes black, save for a lavender swoosh and three words: “Just do it.”