Kluwe and his lawyer believe their case against the Vikings could finally address the bullying culture in sports locker rooms — and make it easier for future gay players to come out.

"We're just waiting for the next domino to follow. I'm hoping it's going to be baseball. I'm really hoping."

"It's going to have to change, because there are going to be lawsuits," says Clayton Halunen, Kluwe's lawyer. "They're not going to be able to live in this ivory tower anymore like they've been able to, untouchable because they're so powerful."

Sam very well may become the first player to grace the NFL gridiron out of the closet, but he's not the first gay man to play. In all statistical likelihood, there have been gay football players as long as there's been football.

Athletes party at Howard Bragman's house the night before Sam's big announcement. From left: Wade Davis, David Kopay, Michael Sam, Chris Kluwe, Billy Bean, Brendon Ayanbadejo.
Brian Spurlock/USA Today Sports
Athletes party at Howard Bragman's house the night before Sam's big announcement. From left: Wade Davis, David Kopay, Michael Sam, Chris Kluwe, Billy Bean, Brendon Ayanbadejo.
Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe continues to fight for LGBT rights in sports, even though his own career is finished.
Andy Mannix
Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe continues to fight for LGBT rights in sports, even though his own career is finished.

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Kopay was the first NFL player to ever come out after retirement, and it cost him dearly. Over the course of nine years, Kopay played for six teams beginning in 1964. He knew very well that he wasn't the only gay player in the NFL at the time; he had a brief sexual relationship with a teammate, Jerry Smith, who died of AIDS before ever coming out himself. But Kopay recognized that revealing his sexuality would mean the unceremonious end of his career, so he kept it a secret from nearly everyone in his life.

"For me to survive the dark days that existed then — you have no idea," says Kopay. "There was days when I was afraid of the dark. There was days when I was questioning everything. It was bleak."

He came out in 1975, two years after retirement, after reading an article about an anonymous gay NFL player he recognized as his Smith. At the time, Kopay was a prospect for several coaching positions, but each team passed him over, which he believes — at least in part — was punishment for coming out. Instead of coaching, he spent most of his post-NFL days helping run a family floor-covering store.

"I would love to have coached, and I think I would have been a damn good coach," he says.

Only five more NFL players have come out of the closet after retirement. Still, society's attitude toward gays has changed dramatically since Kopay's day, most noticeably in the past few years. Seventeen states have now legalized gay marriage, and even the president has announced his public support for the repeal of DOMA. The military has ended its Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Many states have passed anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT employees in the workplace.

Even straight athletes are speaking out for gay rights. Kluwe, who has two daughters with his wife, Isabel, first launched himself into celebrity status as a relentless defender of gay rights in 2012 in a letter to the sports gossip site Deadspin. In it, Kluwe rhetorically eviscerated a Maryland legislator for trying to silence Ravens' Brendon Ayanbadejo's advocacy for same-sex marriage. "If gay marriage becomes legal, are you worried that all of a sudden you'll start thinking about penis?" Kluwe implored the legislator in the letter, which went viral and racked up millions of Web hits. "'Oh shit. Gay marriage just passed. Gotta get me some of that hot dong action!'"

Kluwe campaigned aggressively against a doomed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Minnesota, and he has continued to lobby for same-sex rights on Twitter and by speaking at events. He led the Minneapolis Pride parade in 2013, and last summer he and Ayanbadejo filed a brief supporting same-sex marriage in the U.S. Supreme Court's Hollingsworth v. Perry case over the implementation of California's Prop 8 that recognized marriage as strictly a union of a man and a woman.

"I think what Chris Kluwe did was absolutely fabulous," says Kopay. "He was more effective than a gay person would be. I've thanked him many times for that."

Today, even if athletes do object to homosexuality, it's far less acceptable to voice these opinions publicly. When a player's homophobic rhetoric does go public, it's more often met with protest from fans than in the past.

"We've seen athletes on a professional level sort of grow up a little bit, I think, when it comes to realizing they can't have anti-gay rhetoric be part of their public speech," says Brian Healey, spokesman for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit that battles homophobia in sports. "It's not gonna fly anymore."

Two weeks after coming out publicly, Michael Sam addressed a throng of reporters at the NFL combine pressroom, already half grinning as he walked up to the podium.

"How you guys doing today?" he asked, laughing. "My name's Michael Sam, and I play football for the University of Missouri. As you may know, Missouri's the 'Show-Me State.' And you'd think I've shown you guys enough these past couple weeks, but I'm learning with the media you guys still want more. So ask your questions."

"Would you be hesitant about going into the Miami Dolphins locker room?" reporters asked, alluding to the bullying scandal that rocked that locker room. "Do you think you'll inspire other gay players to come out?" "Do you feel like a trailblazer?"

"I feel like I'm Michael Sam."

As long as there has been talk of gay athletes coming out, there have been questions as to how the revelation would go over with fans, teammates and coaches, and whether their personal lives would be a distraction to the sport.

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@RiverfrontTimes only matters how he performs on the field; his sexual preference doesn't matter & shouldn't have to be publicly known

Jeff Powell
Jeff Powell

I look forward to the day he is called an athlete. Does he have a gay meal or gay cook or gay? Must we put labels on everyone?


Is "Rise of the Gay Athlete" supposed to be a pun????

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