(This story was published in 2003).

“Steven Thompson” is paid big bucks to be a tough NFL player, but many times he feels powerless.

“I’m not brave,” Thompson said. “I’m gutless, really.”

Thompson is a pseudonym for an active NFL player who is gay. New York Times reporter Mike Freeman tells his story in a chapter of a new book, “Bloody Sundays.”

The book offers an interesting insider’s account of the NFL written by Freeman, a man with 15 years experience in covering pro football. There are profiles of Jon Gruden and Emmitt Smith, along with fascinating details of spying within the league and other topics. But the section on Thompson is groundbreaking and offers the first time an active NFL player has spoken at length about his homosexuality.

In Freeman’s account, Thompson comes across as a troubled but articulate soul. He speaks of depression and sleeplessness as he wrestles with being a closeted gay man in a homophobic atmosphere. The quote about feeling “gutless” refers to an incident in a San Francisco restaurant where Thompson sat silently as teammates, including a backup quarterback, made increasingly loud and offensive anti-gay comments.

“Why do those motherfuckers have to hold hands in public?” Thompson said one teammate asked, referring to a couple at another table.

“We are in Fagville,” replied the quarterback.

As Freeman writes, “Thompson says he remained quiet as the slurs were spewed. Suddenly, that sickening feeling in his stomach, eerily familiar, was back, the one that made him feel like a coward for not speaking up and telling his friends he was gay and to close their mouths.”

But Thompson has made a choice to stay quiet—he fears his NFL career would be over, as would any chance of staying in the sport as a coach or in management. It’s a tradeoff gay jocks in pro sports make all of the time. To date, not a single pro baseball, football, basketball or hockey player has come out while still playing (and the number who have come out after retiring couldn’t fill a starting 11 in football).

In an interview with Outsports, Freeman described Thompson as “bright and very well-read. … He’s smart and he’s got a prickly kind of temperament. He doesn’t suffer dumb questions.” He also described the player as paranoid about being discovered, though he regularly frequents gay bars and has had regular relationships with other men, including another player.

Getting Thompson to open up about being gay, even anonymously, was a lengthy process that took a couple of years, Freeman said. The two first met while they were going through volunteer training for an organization that works with gay people, among others. Neither knew of the other and over time Thompson began confiding in the reporter. “He was always sort of complaining about how gays are viewed in general,” Freeman said. “He was really angry and passionate about it.” He finally agreed to let his story be told.

Thompson believed that by coming forward, it might make it easier for other gay players by raising the issue. He made Freeman sign a contract prohibiting him from revealing his identity. I found it impossible to even guess at Thompson’s real name, his ethnicity or his position. Freeman tells us he is not a superstar but would be familiar to NFL fans, and is likely not a rookie or second-year player. He’s also likely not a San Francisco 49ers, since the dinner incident described above came on a team road trip. And he’s certainly not a Cincinnati Bengal (at the time of the writing, at least), since one passage discusses Thompson’s team “making a playoff push.”

The chapter on Thompson is full of contradictions, and that’s not meant as a criticism. When it comes to gays in sports, it seems as if the glass is half-full one day, half-empty the next. Examples:

–On one page, Freeman states that if a player came out publicly “any such pronouncement would finish the player in football.” But two pages later, we read of an annual survey taken of highly rated NFL rookies by agent Ralph Cindrich. In the survey, 76.4% “would be comfortable playing football next to a gay teammate, and 58.1% said they would be comfortable having a gay teammate use the locker next to theirs.” However, 50% said they “had no problem calling gay men ‘faggots’ or similar derogatory names.”

–Freeman recounts how one NFC team passed on “a damn good player” in free agency after discovering he was gay. That team’s coach said, “Call me prejudiced or whatever, but I have to look out for the morale of the team, and a known gay player could destroy that.” However, two paragraphs later, we hear from an NFC general manager who “said the presence of gay players would not be a controversial issue to today’s NFL players because this generation is more open-minded than previous ones.”

Thompson, though, is not taking any chances. He regularly dates women as a cover and has no desire to come out publicly. His fear of being found out, though, hasn’t prevented Thompson from going to gay bars and all-gay parties and having relationships. The most interesting was his long-distance affair with a fellow gay NFL player he met in a bar on the East Coast.

“It was very intense and very weird because we rarely saw each other,” Thompson says in the book. “We communicated through the Internet because he didn’t want me to call him. I thought it was because he was overly paranoid. A lot of guys in the league, gay and straight, get paranoid on the telephone because they think the NFL monitors your calls.”

The real reason for the player’s paranoia, Thompson says, was that he was married to a woman. The two men’s relationship soon was over. “In a strange way I felt better after that relationship,” Thompson says, “because I had met someone who was more confused than I was.”

The most controversial aspect of the Thompson chapter is likely to be his contention that between 100 and 200 players in the NFL are gay. He told Freeman he based his estimate on how many gay athletes he regularly sees when going out. With 1,696 players in the league, 10% would be 170, so Thompson’s numbers might have some validity. But Freeman disputes this figure, saying his “journalistic arrogance” makes him certain he would have heard if there were so many gay players.

After attending an all-gay party with Thompson and seeing a couple of other NFL players, Freeman acknowledges that his skepticism about the numbers may be softening. He now says, “I don’t know how many there are. It’s more than I originally thought but less than he thinks.”

Ultimately, though, no one really knows and the numbers are irrelevant. We’re dealing with people, not statistics; whether there are 2, 20 or 200 gay NFL players should not matter in how they are treated or perceived.

Thompson is to be applauded for telling his story and opening a window into a part of sports many would just as soon keep closed. But one gets a feeling of sadness when hearing that he intends to stay closeted until he dies, and we can only hope he finds a measure of inner peace. Thompson explains his rationale simply:

“Basically, it comes down to, I love playing football more than I love myself and my sense of pride and well-being. … I know keeping this secret is eating me up inside. But right now I don’t care. I love this game so much I won’t do anything to jeopardize it.”