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Michael Sam will not be alone as gay NFL player

FILE - In this Sept. 1 2012 file phoMissouri linebacker Michael Sam (52) is congratulated by teammate Matt Hoch after

FILE - In this Sept. 1, 2012, file photo, Missouri linebacker Michael Sam (52) is congratulated by teammate Matt Hoch after returning a fumble seven yards for a touchdown against Southeastern Louisiana during the first quarter, in Columbia, Mo. Michael Sam hopes his ability is all that matters, not his sexual orientation. Missouri's All-America defensive end came out to the entire country Sunday night, Feb. 9, 2014, and could become the first openly gay player in America's most popular sport. (AP Photo/Chris Lee, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, File)

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Updated: February 10, 2014 10:33PM

Michael Sam’s announcement Sunday night sent me back 11 years, to Dave Kopay’s living room.

I’d gone to West Hollywood to interview the former NFL running back. He’d come out as gay in 1975, three years after retiring.

No professional athlete in the major four American team sports had — or still has —been publicly gay while playing. Kopay was the first to come out after retiring.

Even now, you could count the other NFL players who came out after retirement on a Simpsons character’s hand: Roy Simmons in 1992, Esera Tuaolo in 2002, Wade Davis in 2012 and Kwame Harris last year.

That’s five former NFL players, ever.

And none had done so while playing; nor had anyone while playing in the NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball.

Whatever your views on homosexuality, the fact that hundreds others were afraid to be themselves in the locker room is disturbing.

“I thought there would be more at this stage of the game,” Kopay told me then, shaking his head. “I spoke out in 1975; that’s a lifetime ago.”

It’s been 11 years since I wrote my graduate thesis on the subject matter, intrigued by a 2002 incident where Mike Piazza, who some thought was the subject of a blind New York Post gossip column insinuating his homosexuality, held a press conference specifically to declare he was straight.

Society has changed since then: politicians and news readers, movie stars and singers have come out. Gay marriage is legal in 16 states, and the federal government plans to expand same-sex benefits, starting this week.

Major American male team sports, though, kept homosexuality as its last taboo.

That’s why Sam’s story matters.

Sports — particularly football — have always been society’s last bastion of to-the-gills machismo, which doesn’t always jibe with our idea homosexuality.

Already, some athletes have taken to Twitter in support of Sam. (Those who don’t, we assume, weren’t in a rush to say so).

“One day it won’t be such a huge ordeal to state who you are as a person,” Bears tight end Martellus Bennett Tweeted. “That deal will reveal true progression.

“Cheers to Day 1.”

Bennett, an open-minded musician and artist, isn’t your typical athlete.

Make no mistake: Sports can use the progress.

The Winter Olympics — the highlight of the next two weeks of sports — are being held in a nation with an anti-gay law.

Just last year, during Super Bowl week, 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver swore his team didn’t have a gay player, and added they’d “got to get up out of here” if they were.

Former Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes, dogged by Internet rumors that caused him to tell “I am not gay” last year, went all season without a contract, despite being ranked the fourth-best player at his position by Pro Football Focus in 2012.

A recent Harris Poll found that fans identified the NFL, more than any other pro sports league, as the one where it would be most difficult to come out as gay.

When NBA player Jason Collins came out last year, he was applauded — and then not signed by a single team.

Sam, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year at Missouri last year, is projected to be picked in the middle rounds. Whichever team selects him will sign up for the attention — and from some, scrutiny — that comes with his status as a pioneer.

I always believed the first openly gay active athlete would have the security —financially and with a guaranteed contract — to be himself without fear of backlash.

Sam has neither.

What he does have, though, is generations of NFL players — certainly more than the five who came out after retirement — supporting him.

And the knowledge, as freeing as a clean rush on the passer, that he is being himself.

Cheers to Day 1, indeed.


Twitter: @patrickfinley

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