The NFL is slowly being forced to face the prospect of having an openly gay player in the league and the challenges that will come with it.

This isn't happening because the league is trying to be progressive. The issue is on the table because the NFL and its personnel directors, players and coaches are being forced to confront the ignorance and fears of a gay player through their own missteps -- such as asking young players in interviews if they have a girlfriend.

Forty four years ago, the Washington Redskins were faced with this issue behind the scenes with not one but two gay players. And though neither were out, there were suspicions in the locker room.

What may be surprising to some is that back in 1969 and 1970, there may have been an opportunity in the Redskins locker room to break down this barrier and change attitudes.

Tight end Jerry Smith, as has been reported numerous times over the years, was gay. So was a running back on that Redskins team, Dave Kopay, who revealed in his book in 1977 that he was gay.

Kopay told me in an interview for my book, "Hail Victory: An Oral History of the Washington Redskins," that he found Washington and the Redskins a welcoming atmosphere, even though having gay teammates in that locker room was still just a suspicion and was never out in the open. "I was very accepted and felt very good with the Redskins," Kopay said. "They made me feel good about myself and it eventually allowed me to speak out."

While Kopay came out publicly, Smith never did. He died of AIDS in 1986.

Hall of Fame linebacker Chris Hanburger -- as tough and ornery a player as you would ever find in the NFL -- told me if Smith had confided in his teammates that he was gay, he might have found simple acceptance.

"If we had known, it would not have made any difference," Hanburger said. "If we had known, we would have been highly protective of him, at least I would have. There may have been some players who knew for sure, but I didn't know at the time. I had suspicions, but we didn't talk about it. ... As a team, I don't think it would have made a lick of difference. I know from my point of view it would not have made any difference."

Defensive back Mike Bass told me he was proud to be on the same field as Jerry Smith. "The man could do whatever he wanted to do, as long as he came to play on Sunday," Bass said. "He was a football player, and I was very proud to be on the same field with him. I had heard some things. Dave Kopay was on our team, but these guys came to play, and I didn't care what they did off the field."

Today's NFL could learn a lesson from those Redskins teams.

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and Contact him at