January 15, 1999
Still waiting for a hero
Greg Garber, Special to ESPN.com
He wonders where all the years went.
It has been 23 NFL seasons since Kopay, a running back for five teams in nine seasons, stunned the sports world by coming out as a homosexual. He was the first major professional team-sport athlete to do so, but few have followed. Guard Roy Simmons, who played 58 games for the Giants and Redskins from 1979-83, came out on the Phil Donahue Show in 1992, but that was it.
"I'm the token queer,'' Kopay muses. "I'm it.''
The belief that somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the general population is homosexual suggests that 75 to 150 of the NFL's 1,500 players are closeted.
"Think about this,'' says Atlanta wide receiver Terance Mathis. "You may have three, four gay guys on your team and not even know it.''
Says Kopay, "Of course, that is what I want to believe, and yet I don't see anybody. When my book was on the best-seller list (in 1977), I had a number of calls from some other ballplayers. And I had one teammate come to me and speak of his bisexual nature. I haven't had calls recently.''
The reason is the oppressively homophobic environment in America, which is even more prevalent in professional team sports. NFL agent Leigh Steinberg has given the subject a lot of thought.
"Homosexuality is probably the last and strongest taboo,'' Steinberg says in his Newport Beach, Calif., office, "whether it is men being in groups and uncomfortable about the intimacy of the locker room, or that situation where men in groups tend to repress the most sensitive, tolerant side of a discussion.
"Look,'' he says, "I think it would be much easier, in many senses, to be convicted of robbery and serve time, then come play in major-league baseball or the NFL, than be gay.''
This is Steinberg's semi-famous standard line about gays in professional team sports, and it is probably true. The NFL, the most violent of the major professional sports, has never been a particularly tolerant universe. As Steinberg points out, elite athletics, like the military, tends to embrace the most conservative elements of American society. Discipline, regimentation, toughness are all demanded. And, there is the undeniably powerful presence of born-again Christians.
"I won't be voting for it. I am on the other side,'' says a fervent believer, Washington Redskins cornerback Darrell Green. "We don't have any more space in our locker room.''
Johnny Roland, the Arizona Cardinals' running backs coach, seems to agree.
"You try to sell your team on being a rough, tough, hard-nosed football team,'' Roland says, "and I would assume if that person was of that persuasion, I am not sure of the quality of his toughness.''
Players say whatever toughness he does have would be put to the test.
"If a guy did come out,'' says Giants quarterback Danny Kanell, "he probably would catch a lot of heat. Every Sunday, he'd have to play 10 times harder than anybody else, because everybody'd be geared up to taking it out on him.''
Says Redskins offensive guard Tre Johnson, "It would put everybody on edge. Everybody would ostracize that person. Everybody's fears and insecurities would come to the forefront. And being in this testosterone-ego environment that we are in, that person would get hammered.''
Minnesota's Cris Carter, an NFL wide receiver for 12 seasons, is similarly certain.
"I think it would be tough for a lot of the athletes that I play with to think that, 'Wow, I am showering, I am performing on the field, I am bleeding, I am fighting with a person that is a homosexual,' '' Carter says. "I know there would be people definitely taking shots at him. I feel very confident that that would happen.''
According to Steinberg, that backlash would extend off the field to the delicate -- and lucrative -- areas of marketing and endorsements.
"I think it would have a devastating effect in terms of the marketability of any athlete to come out and talk about gayness,'' Steinberg says. "The whole concept of endorsements is an attempt by a company to appeal to the broadest possible audience. The thought that a company would want to step into the middle of that controversy, especially with the very heavy fundamentalist Christians who are making this a public issue, is is just not there.''
Steinberg has been forced to come to grips with the prospect, since there have been persistent rumors that two of his quarterback clients, San Francisco's Steve Young and Dallas' Troy Aikman, are gay.
"There is a certain level of expectation about any unmarried man in this society that goes into their late 20s or 30s and doesn't get married,'' Steinberg says. "I have never had an athlete who came to me and said he was gay. And in the case of the athletes who are speculated about, they happen not only not to be gay, but heavily heterosexual. The difficult part of it is if the word 'gay' or 'homosexual' is connected in public with an athlete, it will scar him for some period of time.''
Steinberg also acknowledged that when a humorous commercial script for Young and receiver Jerry Rice that stressed their attachment to each other came up recently, there was a fear that it would be misconstrued.
"There were some subtexts there,'' Steinberg says. "I mean, Steve Young is very confident in his sexuality. We are completely comfortable with who he is in the world, and part of that is to be able to poke fun at some of the speculation.''
According to Kopay, who now runs Linoleum City, the family floor-covering business in Los Angeles, it was the discomfort level he brought to the NFL that cost him a coaching job there.
"Anybody else who spent 10 years in the NFL and was an overachiever who really learned the game, who approached everybody to get the door opened here or there, certainly could do that,'' says Kopay, who will chat with ESPN.com users today at 3 p.m. ET. "I also tried some contacts at San Francisco State, and they said, 'Don't even try. Forget it.' And this was in San Francisco in 1977.
"I know I could still probably be a good coach.''
Kopay, an unabashed optimist in most areas of his life, admits the long wait for an openly gay NFL player has left him pessimistic. He doesn't think it will happen during the present generation of athletes.
"As liberal as we all like to think we are,'' says Bruce Armstrong, the Patriots' Pro Bowl offensive tackle, "it would be a distraction. I don't think we're developed enough to handle that right now.''
Kopay believes "if it was any major star who was making the money they make today,'' it could happen. "The NFL would have to get caught up like they finally got caught up with the Civil Rights movement, and they would not cut that player.''
If it was a no-name, minimum-salary player?
"You would be gone,'' Kopay says. "Gone.''
Kopay, 56, looks weary. He has been carrying the torch for this issue for 23 years. Clearly, he is tired of standing alone.
"I do think it's going to happen before I leave this planet. I think within another generation, another 20 years, it's going to happen.''
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