Well, at some point, but no one knows when. The danger of the locker room is one thing, but there is also immense pressure on players not to do anything to destroy the dream of playing pro ball. What’s more, the first guy who comes out, that’s how he’ll be remembered: as the Jackie Robinson of gay rights. While we applaud Robinson’s bravery in crossing baseball’s color line, we tend to forget that he could have made the Hall of Fame simply because he was a great player.
That’s a lot for a pro to trade: acknowledgement that he’s one of the best athletes in the world for the rocky road of social justice.
THERE ARE CERTAINLY ON-THE-DOWN-LOW WHISPERS of pro players who are out to teammates. John Amaechi, a former NBA player who came out publicly in 2007, says he knows of many active gay players in football, baseball and basketball. How many? “Put it this way,” Amaechi says in his deep baritone. “If they got together, it would not be a small meeting.”
Yet there’s a very short list of gay pro players in the four major men’s sports who have ever come out: Dave Kopay, Roy Simmons and Esera Tuaola in football; Amaechi in basketball; Glenn Burke and Billy Bean in baseball. That’s it. And all of them waited until they retired. No pro has ever come out while he’s still playing.
NFL running back Dave Kopay was the pioneer, revealing his sexual orientation to the Washington Star in 1975, two years after he left the NFL. “I was totally blasted by the sports world,” Kopay says from his home near the University of Washington, where he played college ball. Kopay recounts that Mike McCormack, coach of the Eagles when Kopay came out—and an assistant coach when Kopay played for the Washington Redskins—responded, “My reaction was one of sickness. I don’t know firsthand of any homosexuality, and I don’t know where it would fit in.”
Kopay’s NFL career began in 1963, six years before the Stonewall riots in New York famously protested police raids on homosexuals; not only were gays assumed to be nonexistent in sports, they could barely breathe anywhere. Kopay himself was a mix of confusion and desire. He knew he was gay, but didn’t want to be labeled as one of the “fags and fairies” his teammates habitually cursed. With his first NFL paycheck, Kopay bought his parents a color TV and flew his college friend Ted to San Francisco for a weekend. They went drinking with some of Kopay’s teammates, ostensibly looking for women, even though, just as in college, Kopay and Ted ended up in bed together. (In the morning, the previous night hadn’t happened.) Things never got better for Kopay. Teammate John Brodie introduced him to a stewardess; a psychiatrist put him under hypnosis and insisted getting married was the cure. The marriage was a disaster.
Now 69, Dave Kopay lives alone. He has no love life. Yet he’s not bitter as much as still raw, as if it’s still 1975, as if he’s frozen in the intensity of his solitary stand. And when you consider the dearth of gay players who have gone public, and the way homosexuality is still viewed in some quarters in America, his pain is wrenching: “Being gay is not a preference at all. It’s being in the right place at the right time to be held and loved—it’s that, period. I don’t give a shit what people say. Love doesn’t have a gender.”
John Amaechi, a very tall Englishman who came to America with a dream of making it in the NBA, first had sex with a man in a bathroom stall at Penn State, where he was a star center in the mid-’90s. By then, AIDS had ravaged the gay community for more than a decade, and Magic Johnson had startled the sports world by announcing he was HIV-positive. (He’d contracted the disease, he assured us, not from a man, but from one of the many women he’d slept with.)
At Penn State, it didn’t take long for Amaechi to come across graffiti scrawled in the Rec Hall locker room: AMAECHI’S A BIG FAG. Since it was surrounded by better stuff about him—GREAT GUY, ROLE MODEL, TERRIFIC PLAYER—he simply scratched out the homophobia and left the rest. Denial intact, he made it out of Penn State as a two-time academic All-American. Yet while “gay sports star” was still oxymoronic, Amaechi’s placid understanding that he preferred men was miles apart from Kopay’s alarming discovery.
Not that his equanimity helped him all that much. In the NBA—after exploring his sexuality playing overseas in Greece and Italy—Amaechi avoided relationships altogether, knowing he could never be public with any partner. On the road, he would often have to listen to a married teammate in the next motel room screw the night away with someone certainly not his wife.
Things changed when he signed a lucrative multi-year contract with the Utah Jazz, gaining some sense of freedom. Amaechi wasn’t quite ready to risk hitting gay clubs late at night, but he was perfectly willing to walk down the street with “a posse of flamboyant gay guys” in Salt Lake City at high noon. He was testing the boundaries, and soon discovered exactly where they lay.
Amaechi believes he was traded from Utah in 2003 because hard-ass coach Jerry Sloan knew he was gay. He is certain his teammates knew. And that word had gotten around.
In fact, after Sloan shipped him off to Houston, Amaechi heard from Jazz employees that Sloan had called him “a fag,” a discovery Amaechi included in 2007’s Man in the Middle, the book he wrote after retiring. Few in the sporting world raised an eyebrow in Sloan’s direction over that.
EAGLES DEFENSIVE LINEMAN TRENT COLE gave a good long laugh when I asked if his team would accept an openly gay player, and another lineman, Darryl Tapp, said, after a long pause, that it would “take a lot of getting used to.” Yet another lineman, Juqua Parker, heard the question and said, “Oh no, I can’t do that, I can’t do that. I can’t talk about that.” Even new cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, advertised as a sophisticated guy, was silent for a long moment in considering whether he’d have a problem with a gay teammate, then said: “You know, I don’t know.”
But I also found a thoughtful, everybody’s-welcome attitude among many Eagles when I asked about gay teammates.
“A lot of guys who are open-minded would be fine with it,” guard Evan Mathis told me. “The way I hear guys talk sometimes, I think some guys might be a little affected by it. I’d be fine with it.”
I wondered what the hardest part for a gay player coming out would be—teammates, endorsements, the media?