- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2007

The sports world has reacted in the best and worst ways to the news that former center John Amaechi became the first NBA player to publicly come out and declare he was gay.

Unfortunately, as you would expect, there has been more ignorance than intelligence.

Grant Hill said he backed Amaechi’s decision to come forward and hoped it would open minds.

“The fact that John has done this, maybe it will give others the comfort or confidence to come out as well, whether they are playing or retiring,” Hill told the Associated Press.

But Philadelphia 76ers forward Shavlik Randolph thought it would create an awkward situation in the locker room, although this enlightened individual said he was OK with it, “as long as you don’t bring your gayness on me.”

Randolph must have a high opinion of himself.

Coming on the advent on the league’s All-Star Game, this debate likely will carry on. But it is doubtful it will lead anywhere. It is an issue that has been simmering below the surface for at least 40 years, and it very well could have blown up here in Washington in 1969, when the Redskins had at least two players the world later would learn were gay.

Running back Dave Kopay came to the Redskins in 1969 to play for their new coach, Vince Lombardi, and he became close to All-Pro tight end Jerry Smith. Kopay, like Amaechi, would reveal in a book after he retired that he was gay. And, though Smith never made such claims, it was something that had been talked about through the years before it came out when he tragically died of AIDS in 1986.

Looking back, maybe that was the time and the place where this wall could have been broken down, if either player had come out publicly while they were playing. The time was so tumultuous and there was so much change in the air that such news might not have been met with the paranoia that seems to hover today. Washington, where much of the social revolution was being fought and debated, would have been the appropriate stage for this to play out, and this team — the one that is charged by some for having a racist name — might have been the best place for an active player to come forward. They might have found a strong support system from their coach and at least some teammates.

In an interview for my book, “Hail Victory: An Oral History of The Washington Redskins,” Kopay, who over the years has become a spokesman for gay rights in sports, said he felt comfortable in Washington and with Lombardi, who may or may not have known that he and Smith were gay.

“If it wasn’t for those people who gave me the courage to be myself … even Lombardi, in a way, who brought me there … it gave me a sense of well-being that I was OK, and look what it led me to,” Kopay said. “I’ve spoke to the American Bar Association, the American Association of Pediatricians. How did this all happen? It was because of my time with the Redskins. The town itself was also welcoming. It wasn’t New York, where the skyscrapers would scare you to death. It was a wonderful, open kind of place.

“Lombardi treated me with respect, and he was around people that were gay,” Kopay added. “I don’t think he knew that I was gay. I sometimes wonder if he knew Jerry was.”

Linebacker Chris Hanburger said there always was talk around the team about the gay players, but never quite out in the open.

Hanburger, one of the toughest players to ever play for the Redskins, said if it had been in the open, the team would have pulled together, not apart.

“I knew Jerry very well,” Hanburger said. “It was a sad story, and for a lot of us, we kind of wondered about him. But had we known, it would not have made any difference. If we had known, we would have been highly protective of him. He came to play when he was on the field. Had we known, for sure we would have protected him, at least I would have. There may have been some players who knew for sure, but I didn’t know at the time. I had suspicions, but we didn’t talk about it.

“When the AIDS thing became known, because it was so new and there was so much about the disease we didn’t know, there was some fear,” Hanburger added. “We didn’t know if we could shake hands with him or what. As things went on, we understood better. But as a team, I don’t think it would have made a lick of difference. I know from my point of view it would not have made any difference.”

No one realized it at the time, but there may have been a missed opportunity here in 1969, an opportunity that could have laid the groundwork for generations to come, so young men like Shavlik Randolph could get over themselves and their paranoias.

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