December 18, 1998
Kopay: Apologizes to Aikman
Dave Kopay was the first professional team sport athlete to declare his homosexuality. Since that moment in 1975, three years after his retirement from a nine-year career as an NFL running back, few have followed in his wake.
Kopay played for five teams during his career -- San Francisco, Detroit, Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay. He later tried to get into coaching, but the NFL and colleges expressed no interest after his homosexuality was made public.
Kopay now runs his family's linoleum business in Southern California. As part of the Outside the Lines series on gays and homophobia in sports, Kopay chatted about his experience and those of other gay athletes.
Below is an edited transcript of that chat:
Chris: It has been no secret that a lot of athletes have a history of being womanizers. Did you see a lot of that happening and did fellow football players wonder why you weren't interested in partaking in their fun?
Dave Kopay: As for being a womanizer, at a young age you're full of excitement and energy. And I did date women at the time. A lot of guys were married and they'd go home to their wives. So the fact that I didn't date a whole lot of women wasn't unusual. Also, the fact that I moved around to six teams over my career, people didn't get as close to me, so it was easier in that regard.
Also, the time was the 1960s and '70s, and there was room for sexual experimentation, a little bit. And I did exactly that.
Andrew: What was the reaction from your former teammates when you disclosed your homosexuality? Are you in touch with any of those former players today? Thanks for having the courage to come out.
Dave Kopay: I have been in touch with a couple players. I tend not to be in touch as much as I'd like to, because I don't want to put any extra stress on them, in terms of what people perceive. When I played, I was a very aggressive, tough ballplayer -- I had to be as an overachieving running back. In 10 years, I gained their respect by being especially tough, but that was also a good ruse to hide my true sexual identity, by being tougher. It seems like the biggest fag-haters I've known are the people who are most confused about their sexuality. I know, because I was one of them.
koPayDay: At what age did you know for sure that you were homosexual? And do you think that some people go through experimental stages, where they are interested in the same sex for a while, but then convert back to being straight?
Dave Kopay: I think a lot of young folks do that. It seems like in our society, they've taken away the chance for people to figure out what they are, and it makes for more stress and isolation. Young kids often naturally are inquisitive and playful, and even have sex to the point of orgasm as youngsters; it does not necessarily mean one is homosexual. Also, in my own case I truly know now that I'm mostly homosexual in terms of identity. I still haven't figured out what 'homosexual lifestyle' means. But I certainly could function as a heterosexual also; an open and honest relationship, that's called intimacy, and within that you could enjoy sex.
Joe Thompson: My younger brother is a gay student at a major university. I completely support him and thankfully he has the support of my parents as well. The Wyoming incident floored me. Has the NFL or any major sports created any avenues for gays to confidentially discuss their thoughts or issues?
Dave Kopay: I don't know about confidentiality; I think that happens naturally with their peers. But certainly the right-wing gay-bashers out there like Pat Robertson, those people are all preaching hate. You have one of the leaders of this country coming out and equating gays with kleptomaniacs and alcoholics. It's disgusting. Of course, the more hateful rhetoric out there -- and they always like to pick and choose their comments out of the Bible -- well, people have got to be responsible for what they say and do. And certainly the more hatred that's preached out there by the Reggie Whites, and some of the irresponsible statements by the right wing and Republican Party, is totally destructive.
During the Civil Rights movement, many of the same arguments against black people's civil liberties were stated then as they are now against gay people. Any black person of consequence in today's world knows that one does not choose their sexuality; it's a given. Figuring it out, in this world of hate and villification by so many, is what's so difficult. Black people did not choose the color of their skin, but they certainly were condemned for the color of their skin.
Matthew: Do you think there would ever be a time where it would be OK, safe, easier for players to come out?
Dave Kopay: Yes, I do. For the last five years there has been an openly gay professional rugby player in New Zealand who came out in response to not excluding his partner/mate/lover, whatever you want to call him. His teammates totally accepted him, he's earned $500,000 a year, he's been able to shrug off the insensitive comments, and he just happens also that looks like he could be the next Terminator. He's a physical specimen and totally manly.
It can happen, if it's already happened to a major, major star. I used to think it was going to happen fairly soon, back when I wrote my book, but now I don't think it's going to happen for another generation. But I do think it will happen eventually.
Adam: Do you think there is anyone in the NFL right now who is gay and is afraid to come out of the closet?
Dave Kopay: Absolutely. I don't know who that player is; I've been removed from the league many years. But when I joined the Redskins there was a player who became all-pro, Jerry Smith, who was gay but wasn't out. The assistant general manager of the team came out after he left the team. So yes, there are definitely gays in the front offices, and on the teams in the NFL. Gays have always been a part of society at every level; of course, in some areas they excel in greater than others.
Kate: what did you think about the Troy Aikman/Skip Bayless incident a couple of years ago? Do you think it is fair and/or necessary to out somebody in the league?
Dave Kopay: I don't think it's fair or necessary. It's against what I think a person's character should be in terms of being honest and having integrity. To begin with, people always ask about Aikman or Steve Young or Joe Montana -- they always pick out the most dynamic, successful men. Is that fuel for their own fantasies? I don't know. They never pick out the ugly ones.
I think Skip Bayless has a screw loose. I had an incident happen when I was getting on the airplane. The last person on the plane was Troy Aikman. I introduced myself to him and said I owed him an apology, because I said something I regret saying. Troy is a very handsome man and would be anyone's fantasy, whether from the gay or straight world, and I had said something off the cuff in doing an article for GQ magazine, because everyone's always asked me about the gay quarterbacks when I played. He asked me, "Would you be interested in having sex with Troy Aikman?" And I said the answer was yes. And he wrote that in the magazine.
Which wasn't fair, because it might have put more pressure on Troy. Gay men and women don't always know who is gay, but I'm often very accurate. To this day, I don't believe Troy Aikman is gay.
GiantFan: Did you ever have a sexual encounter with a teammate or other player in the league?
Dave Kopay: Yes, I did. Jerry Smith. That was like my first real coming-out experience. Jerry was much more worldly than I was. He had been to a number of countries, had a number of different lovers. It was an emotional moment for me since it was new, but it meant little to him. Still, I am thankful for his aggressiveness.
Bobby: In Pete Gent's North Dallas Forty, he dances around the issue of homosexuality in the locker room, but a couple of his characters are having an affair. Do you think NFL teams in the past and present look the other way or do they just not know what's going on?
Dave Kopay: I think the players today know more than ever before what's going on. Maybe that's why there hasn't been another player speaking out. When Jerry and I existed together as teammates, there was so little on TV or in other media. The queens hadn't rioted in New York City yet. It was a very, very hidden world; it still is, but not to that extent. So Peter Gent's wonderful book is true in every facet of the imagination.
Now, having met Peter and told him what a wonderful book that was, he's certainly not comfortable at all with the whole issue of sexuality. At least then. Maybe now he is. But I can at least relate to how he expressed his feelings about the periphery of the team, the owner, etc, and his use of the team for his own feelings -- or latent feelings.
People want to hear that sexuality is a cut-and-dried, easily definable situation. But we are made up of both female and male chromosomes, and I think the whole range of sexuality is on a fulcrum. It varies, and everyone can have homosexual fantasies or love or whatever. I think there's just not enough love, period, in the world. I can't understand why people get so upset with that expression -- unless, again, they are fighting their own fears. It seems the people who are most comfortable, who are the most secure in their sexuality. I've had heterosexual men tell me "thank you" for a compliment; they're flattered by the attention, not offended by it. You certainly don't look at everyone with a sexual intention, anyway. The male and female body is an incredibly beautiful thing, and we should honor it.
I've got to go, but in conclusion I'd like to say that this has been an incredible year for me, between a panel I worked on in Florida that addressed this topic, a piece I wrote for the New York Times, the GQ article and this series on ESPN.
My address is 4455 Los Feliz Boulevard, Unit 907, Los Angeles 90027. If anyone cares to write, please feel free to do so; I can't always guarantee a response, because I often get too much mail. But I'd be interested to see what people say. It makes the world a little less small when you know about people's experiences.