(This review was originally submitted to Epinions. I am reclaiming my work in edited and updated form.)
So Michael Sam, a linebacker from Missouri with legitimate hopes of being taken in the NFL draft, has come out as gay. He did so knowing that this might impact his opportunity to play at the sport’s highest level. Evidently he had already come out to his college teammates, who respected his confidence and continued to treat him as a teammate.
This takes guts. You know how, when a windshield cracks, it can be repaired provided the crack doesn’t reach the edge? This may be the blow that cracks the glass barrier of discrimination to its edge. While those of us who advocate an end to homophobic discrimination are cheering on Michael Sam, I’d like to remind the world of the man who first struck at the barrier. I have more in common with him than some might realize.
David Kopay was a tough college running back who made it to the professional football ranks through sheer determination and obstinacy, staying there for a decade as a backup and special teams hand. A craggily handsome fellow who ‘came out’ in the mid-1970s while writing The David Kopay Story with Perry Deane Young. And a University of Washington Husky.
David and I, therefore, have walked the same collegiate paths. I’m proud of my alma mater; while no university is perfect, UW (we usually say ‘U-Dub,’ often without the definite article) combines a square mile of carefully landscaped lakeside campus with some of the finest educational tools that exist. As far as I know, it is still the very finest nursing school in the land, and maybe the world. For those with the self-discipline to till them, UW can offer impressively fertile grounds for learning in a rich variety of studies.
We also have good sports teams. But when I think of famous fellow Dawgs who inspire me, the first one that comes to mind is not Football Hall of Famer Hugh McIlhenny. Nor is it legendary quarterback Warren Moon. It is not statesman Warren Magnuson, flying ace and Medal of Honor winner ‘Pappy’ Boyington, activist and decorated veteran Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, newsman Chet Huntley, actors Richard Karn, Dawn Wells, Joel McHale or Patrick Duffy, or civil rights activist Gordon Hirabayashi–though I’d be honored to meet any of them.
No, when I think of fellow alumni whose hands I would like to shake, David Kopay is the first-stringer.
We must remember that this book was first published in 1977. Jimmy Carter was President. The nation was mired in a post-Vietnam funk. The economy was a hot mess. We had begun to make meaningful the civil rights gains of the 1960s. The Cold War was a reality. We were expecting the next war in Europe, possibly soon, and our military was the next thing to a broken force.
The ex-hippies were just starting to be promoted to lower management, but going home and listening to the Beatles and the Stones on vinyl at home, and clinging to their VW microbuses as tokens of a bygone time when ‘all you needed was love.’ We had partied the hearty party of post-WWII prosperity, we were about done throwing up the morning after, and we were mopping up the puke with a throbbing headache and drinking cranberry juice. And telling everyone to turn that damn music down.
The popular perception of male homosexuality in the 1970s was that it was a personal choice, like becoming a Jehovah’s Witness or a disk jockey. Many also saw it as a dangerous perversion, felonious in many states. Family and friends tended to treat it as a major disgrace. Society treated male homosexuality as a rare, contagious, emasculating disease.
In this timeframe, at the finish of a ten-year NFL career, David Kopay let it be public knowledge that he was homosexual. No one else had done this, especially not someone who had spent nearly a generation in men’s locker rooms where he might–omigawd–see other men naked. It sounds stupid now, but remember the times, and you’ll be able to imagine the reaction.
With Young’s able assistance, Kopay tells us the story of his path to ultimately living as an out gay man. The conflicting desires. The intoxicated sexual incidents with friends and fraternity brothers. How hard he tried to be heterosexual, and the ways in which that hurt women who truly cared for him. The cracks and comments from teammates who had no idea how correct they were, and the way Kopay enjoyed hitting them extra hard in practice. The format alternates between Kopay’s narrative and Young’s commenary, and flows well, with no sense of reading a tennis match. (Not that it’s really germane, but the two were never lovers. Of course, if you co-author a book with someone, you might as well be.)
Kopay’s book impacted popular perceptions of athletes similarly to Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. For many years, the public had practiced voluntary ignorance concerning professional athletes’ humanity. Bouton, another of my great heroes (although it should not be glossed over that Ball Four contains some crude homophobic references that I suspect Bouton regrets today), had made athletes look more human. By coming out, Kopay humanized them in yet another. If part of the population is gay, part of the athlete population will be gay. Kopay’s work destroyed that comfy ability to pretend that wasn’t so.
I find Kopay’s description of his upbringing to ring with truth, which is why I’d recommend it for anyone who wishes to better understand the experience of being gay. Of course he found his early desires and thoughts confusing; he was raised in a very religious home, and there was no manual available in any case to explain that some people happened to prefer same-sex partners. His only clue was that he knew, deep down, that he was more interested in males than females, try as he might to live otherwise. The candor of this self-discovery story, and his coming to terms with it, makes Kopay’s book relevant nearly two generations after its first publication.
By modern standards, his family’s reaction to his coming out would be considered very disappointing. For the 1970s, their reaction was commonplace and mainstream. Kopay lets us see the pain that caused him, the ‘we cannot truly accept you as you are’ hurt that continues to bleed long after. His African American teammates who knew or suspected he was gay were also the most understanding. While the book is explicit, it’s not pornographic. it is more about football than sex, and again, Kopay is straightforward. He was not a big star. He hung on in the pros by sheer force of will. He just wanted to play the game.
That explains another part of the kinship I feel with David Kopay. Armed with moderate athletic talent, he lowered his helmet and charged, pounding his way to a respectable ten-year professional football career. Unlike Kopay, I lacked athletic talent, yet I battled my way to two high school varsity baseball letters, a varsity football letter, and the slightly fear-tinged regard earned by someone lacking a commonsensical regard for his own safety. The only thing that got me any respect was the reckless use of the hardshell helmet against joints, soft parts, and so on. (I once hit a kid hard enough to break one of the steel bolts holding my face mask in place.)
After college, I took up amateur hockey and played it for six years, leaving memories of myself with many; I also played ten years of amateur baseball, making solid contributions to competitive teams (and, I daresay, leaving a few physical calling cards along the basepaths). I refused to accept lack of talent as a disqualifier. I wanted to win, and to do well, and I wanted it bad enough to give all of what little ability I did have. I’ve learned that it’s about 80% what you do with what you have and about 20% what you have to work with. The same ratio held true in college academics, as I learned by underachieving my way through my first two years of school, while others of comparable natural talent made me look rather dumb by comparison.
Kopay set forth to be a collegiate and professional athlete, not an activist. His career was not spectacular, but certainly successful (he was particularly tough on special teams). After that career ended, a challenge far greater than the Rose Bowl came his way. Kopay faced and met that challenge. His account doesn’t dwell on the courage that took; nor should it, because it speaks for itself. Sure, he was afraid; I also would have been. He felt the fear, and did it anyway.
I wish I’d had David Kopay on any or all of my teams. Skills, talents, sexual preference; all secondary considerations. Give me someone who’s honest; give me a comrade; give me someone who wants to win with all his or her heart; give me guts under fire; give me someone who never quits; give me someone who’ll angrily tell me I’m full of it; give me someone who will lead me if I falter, follow me if I lead, and avenge me if I fall.
Let me draft a team loaded with that mentality, and we will make a way.
In the first round of that draft, my team selects David Kopay.
Michael Sam’s step is of similar magnitude. I am glad that today, unlike Kopay’s day, he may look behind him and see not merely a few confidential well-wishers, but a great multitude in which straight allies outnumber those who are gay. This is one of those rare crowds where I feel comfortable. Good luck, Michael.