Jason Collins coming out as gay this week was a breakthrough because he became the first active professional athlete in major American team sports to come out. There have been many questions about how he and other gay players would be accepted by coaches, players and teammates, especially in the close-knit setting of a sports locker room. Hines Ward has said he does not think the NFL is ready for a gay player. If that’s the case, then he is about 45 years late to the party, because Vince Lombardi apparently knew he had gay players on his team in the late-’60s, and protected and accepted them.
ESPN New York columnist Ian O’Connor conducted an interview with Lombardi’s daughter who says her father was way ahead of his time when it came to preaching equal treatment for all.
“My father was way ahead of his time,” Susan Lombardi told ESPN New York. “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.”
O’Connor says that Lombardi worked with at least five gay men on his 1969 Washington Redskins team — three players and two executives. The coach is quoted in his biography, “When Pride Still Mattered,” by author David Maraniss, as protecting running back Ray McDonald, who was gay.
“And if I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood,” Lombardi is quoted as telling one of his assistants, “you’ll be out of here before your ass hits the ground.”
Lombardi’s late brother, Harold, was also gay, and Harold’s partner of 41 years says the coach lent his brother unconditional love and support.
Former running back Dave Kopay played for Lombardi’s Redskins in 1969, and he became the first player to come out following his playing days. Kopay was in a relationship with the team’s tight end, Jerry Smith, who never came out but was widely known to be gay. Kopay says he feels strongly that Lombardi knew he was gay.
“Lombardi protected and loved Jerry,” Kopay told O’Connor.
Lombardi also protected his African-American players during a time when there was still a lot of tension over civil rights. He refused to let his team frequent restaurants, bars or hotels where equal services were not offered to black players.
As Lombardi’s daughter said, her father treated everyone equally — like dogs. Maybe treating people like dogs isn’t so great, but not discriminating against people because of their skin color, culture, or sexual orientation is just about what any athlete could ask for.