The ongoing debate about how a gay NFL player would be treated in the locker room has largely focused on the idea that times are changing, and that acceptance of a gay player would be a modern development. But it’s often overlooked that the ultimate example of the old-school football coach was also perfectly fine with having gay players on his team.
Multiple players who played for Vince Lombardi, the legendary former Packers and Redskins coach, say that he knew some of his players were gay, and that not only did he not have a problem with it, but he went out of his way to make sure no one else on his team would make it a problem.
In 1969, Lombardi’s Redskins included a running back named Ray McDonald, who in 1968 had been arrested for having sex with another man in public. In the Lombardi biography When Pride Still Mattered, author David Maraniss writes that Lombardi told his assistants he wanted them to work with McDonald to help him make the team, “And if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you’ll be out of here before your ass hits the ground.”
Lombardi’s daughter Susan told Ian O’Connor of ESPNNewYork.com that her father would have been thrilled to have a player like Jason Collins, the NBA center who publicly revealed this week that he is gay.
“My father was way ahead of his time,” Susan Lombardi said. “He was discriminated against as a dark-skinned Italian American when he was younger, when he felt he was passed up for coaching jobs that he deserved. He felt the pain of discrimination, and so he raised his family to accept everybody, no matter what color they were or whatever their sexual orientation was. I think it’s great what Jason Collins did, because it’s going to open a lot of doors for people. Without a doubt my father would’ve embraced him, and would’ve been very proud of him for coming out.”
Dave Kopay, the first former NFL player to come out, also played on those 1969 Redskins, and he says that while he never told Lombardi, he believes Lombardi knew not only that Kopay was gay, but that Kopay and another Redskins player, Jerry Smith, were in a romantic relationship.
“Lombardi protected and loved Jerry,” Kopay told O’Connor.
Lombardi’s brother Harold was gay, and when Harold died in July of 2011 he was survived by his partner of 41 years — meaning their relationship began just before Vince died in September of 1970. As noted by Doug Farrar of Yahoo! Sports, Vince knew Harold was gay and didn’t just believe in “tolerance” but believed strongly that discrimination against gay people was wrong, just as he was angered when he saw mistreatment of his black players, or discrimination against his fellow Italian-Americans.
If a coach who was considered old-fashioned even by the standards of the 1960s accepted gay players in his locker room, the idea that gay players couldn’t be accepted in an NFL locker room in 2013 is both silly and sad.