OPINION – I can’t help but think today of the first really important newspaper story I ever did.
I was a kid of 25, still cutting my teeth on the real-life lessons of the newspaper business. You know, the stuff they don’t teach you in school.
But, the coming out of NBA player Jason Collins on Monday took me back 36 years to a time when I was part of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner sports staff.
At that point, my major beats were pro hockey, motor racing, and the two years of Gene Bartow’s tenure as the successor to John Wooden as the UCLA basketball coach. I wrote a lot of other stories as well, doing pieces on the Angels, Dodgers, Rams, some college football — we had USC and UCLA going very strong back then — pro boxing and just about everything else that comprises the potpourri of sports in Southern California.
It was cool being one of the youngest traveling beat writers covering a major pro team, but we were all young Turks at the Her-Ex, arrogant, sassy, but talented enough to produce a sport section that, at least five days a week, was rated as one of the top five sports outfits in the nation. My teammates were good, darn good.
But, I was also learning that there was far more to sports reporting than the standings and box scores, especially the day when my boss, the immensely talented Alan Malamud, stepped out of his office with a book in his hand.
“I just got this,” he said, stepping out into the bullpen area of the sports department. “Anybody interested?”
He was waving around a copy of “The David Kopay Story: An Extraordinary Self-Revelation,” the story of the first gay professional athlete to come out.
I immediately volunteered, much to the consternation of many of the other guys on the staff who thought I was crazy. After taking the book and contact information, there was a fairly lengthy chat among those of us who were in the office that day. The Toy Department, as the sports staff was referred to back then, was a fairly macho place where we wrote mostly about manly men doing heroic things on fields of green.
Yeah, there were women athletes back then, primarily the tennis players who played the independent circuit and also picked up a few bucks in the interesting, but now defunct, World Team Tennis league. We heard about the swimmers and runners and gymnasts and skiers once every four years when the Olympics came around and there were rumors, of course, mostly centering around tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. But, the thought of a gay man in the NFL, NBA, NHL, or Major League Baseball was unthinkable to most and reprehensible to many.
One of the guys tried desperately to talk me out of the story, saying it would be a bad influence on the kids who looked up to athletes as role models. Another went on about the morality of it. Another did the limp-wrist, speaking with a lisp stereotypical references and wondered aloud if, perhaps, the reason I wanted to do the piece was because I had shoulder-length hair. And, there was one guy, the most proficient womanizer on the staff, who simply said: “Good. One less competitor means more women for me.” Yeah, many traveling sportswriters are no different than most athletes when it comes to chasing women while on the road.
But, I was breaking away from the traditional interests of sportswriters. While it was interesting to hit the road and amass as many out-of-town datelines as possible, I was getting restless and was being drawn more and more in another direction, which led me to the entertainment department where I worked as the paper’s rock critic. Rock music was still fairly relevant and idealistic back then, a little different than the sports world. It touched the emotions, elevated the spirit, questioned authority, which appealed to me.
So, I was all about doing this piece.
I met Kopay in the lobby of the newspaper and headed across the street to Corky’s, the watering hole where a lot of interviews were conducted.
We walked in and Kopay looked around and said: “You know, I’ve been in the dark, in the shadows, for so long, can we go someplace else where it’s brighter?”
“Sure,” I said, leading him over to a little restaurant called The Case, where the newspaper staff often ate lunch.
Kopay was a big guy, a journeyman NFL running back who played for the 49ers, Lions, Redskins, Saints, and Packers during a career that spanned from 1964 until 1972. Football was a lot different back then. So were society’s attitudes towards homosexuality.
During the interview, he talked about how he had to bite his tongue in the locker room as his teammates would make denigrating remarks about homosexuals, how fellow players and fans would hurl derogatory terms for homosexuals at players who they didn’t think were tough enough, about the soul-shattering experience of telling his father he was gay.
Nobody spoke openly about homosexuality back then, there was nobody promoting gay rights, there were no organizations supporting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. If you were outed, you were on your own and you really didn’t have much of a chance. Kopay, for example, was a well-educated man, a smart football player, and many thought he had the makings of a fine coach until he opened himself up to the world and the offers that should have come his way never came his way.
Kopay originally came out because of the backlash from a story in the Washington Star about how tough it was to be gay and play team sports. Kopay recognized the story of one of the sources for the piece. He knew it was his former teammate Jerry Smith, with whom he had a dalliance when they both played for the Redskins.
After the story broke, the letters to the newspaper outraged him so much that he believed the only way to counter them was to announce his sexual orientation and inform the world that, well, indeed, there were gay men engaging in the macho world of professional football. While there were many teammates and former coaches who supported him, the public at large eviscerated him and the media shunned him, not quite knowing how to handle the story.
When word broke about Jason Collins, a mountain of support came his way, from former teammates to NBA superstars. He was congratulated by one former president and received a telephone call from the sitting president. Nike looks like it will step up with a nice, fat endorsement deal. I couldn’t help, though, feeling that it really shouldn’t be news that a pro athlete, or a doctor, teacher, preacher, soldier, or anybody, for that matter, is gay; that a person’s sexual orientation may be a part of what that person is, but does not define what a person is.
All he got was ignored. He built a successful career working for his uncle in the floor covering business, far from the spotlight.
Still, Kopay, who is now pushing 70, was overjoyed when contacted by Outsports magazine about Collins.
“We’ve got a gay general manager (Golden State president Rick Welts) and now we have a gay player,” Kopay told the magazine. “It gets me emotional. (pause) I’m sorry. (pause) No, I’m not sorry, I’m happy as s***.”
So am I, Dave. So am I.
No bad days!
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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