The Surprisingly Long History of Gays in Pro Football

As Americans celebrated the Sunday institution that is pro football, unknown to all but a few is a hidden history of gay allies, players, and increasingly, out gay fans.

The advent of marriage equality, however, has not yet scored any significant victories, with zero additions of out players to National Football League team rosters, coaching staff and management since June. However, even the acknowledgement that gays can and should play — as the New York Giants did in a groundbreaking video last year — is a step forward for the NFL.

Because the truth is gays have, and most likely, do play pro football, while closeted.

NFL fans are currently voting on the football heroes who will be named to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Not listed among the nominees to be chosen, yet again, is Jerry Smith. The two-time Pro Bowl tight end played for the Washington Redskins from 1965 to 1977, retired with 60 touchdown receptions, which established a record that stood for 27 years. He came out in 1986, a truly bold step for its time. He had contracted AIDS, and told the Washington Post he revealed his disease and his sexuality in hopes of making a difference.

“I want people to know what I’ve been through and how terrible this disease is. Maybe it will help people understand. Maybe it will help with development in research. Maybe something positive will come out of this.”

Smith died three months later, and for years, fans and friends have campaigned for his contribution, courage and pioneering spirit to be recognized. He has been eligible since 1983 but has never made the finalists list, and according to Fox Sports, was named to the preliminary list only twice, in 1983 and 1987. Even in the seniors division, Smith has been nominated only one time.

“This guy was a tremendous football player. Tough as nails, great hands – just so dependable,” said Bobby Mitchell in Jerry Smith: A Football Life, which debuted on the NFL Network two years ago next week.

Smith was a proven star who had 421 catches for 5,496 yards; that’s more receptions than three tight ends now in the Hall of Fame, and only six fewer than Mike Ditka caught. Smith also surpassed three inductees in receiving yards. As GLAAD wrote in 2014 to herald that documentary about Smith, “Off the field, Smith lived with a personal secret he did not publicly share with his teammates.”

It wasn’t until long after his time on the gridiron that Smith acknowledged being in a relationship with Dave Kopay, who made history as the first professional team sport athlete to come out as gay. That was in 1975, three years after his retirement from a nine-year career as an NFL running back for San Francisco, Detroit, Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay.

Although Kopay attempted to transition to a coaching career, once he was out, no team would touch him. In 1998, he spoke to ESPN’s Outside the Lines:

“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.”

“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.”

“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."
And that was 1998.

You have to fast forward to 2014 to find another out player, Michael Sam, who was the first out player ever drafted by a pro team, the St. Louis Rams. But the Rams cut him, and after a short stint with the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, he was cut once more and never played in a single NFL game. Sam briefly joined a Canadian team, the Montreal Alouettes, but quit abruptly last year and announced he was retiring for fear of suffering mental health problems, a real danger highlighted by the new Will Smith film, Concussion.

But the other danger LGBT advocates and sports journalists say has kept pro players in the closet is the fear that they will lose support not only from teammates but from antigay fans who will in turn spurn their team.

“It always come back to fear,” Outsports editor and co-founder Cyd Zeigler tells The Advocate. “Fear of the unknown. Fear of retaliation he might receive. The world of football revolves around this very macho image of what it means to be a man that we all learned as children, that being gay is the antithesis of what it means to be a man.

“I think consciously people understand every gay man is not a broadway show queen,” says Zeigler. "But we still use 'straight' to say 'I’m good' and 'gay' to mean something is bad. ‘That’s so gay.’ There is a subconscious understanding that goes back to messages we received in high school.”

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This has been reposted from The Advocate.