“If you’re not meshing with all your teammates,” Mathis said, “that can be a big problem. Chemistry is a big part of professional sports, and the potential for somebody who doesn’t really understand it, who does have homophobic tendencies, that’s their fault—but it’s there. And probably why you don’t see anybody out.”
Many observers say the toughest teammates for a gay player to deal with would be born-again Christians, especially black born-agains, given that, generally speaking, neither evangelicals nor black culture is welcoming to gays.
Wide receiver Jason Avant, an African-American, is the most vocal born-again Christian on the Eagles, but he takes the high road on gays: “I don’t think anyone should shun them, even though my belief as a Christian doesn’t agree with the lifestyle. But I don’t agree with what a lot of people in this locker room do now. But they are my teammates, and you have to learn how to work out differences with anyone.”
At the Flyers’ practice facility in Voorhees, a smaller sampling of players evinced some nervousness at the question, but I kept hearing the same answer: If a guy’s a good teammate, then his personal life, that’s his business. I heard that even from Wayne Simmonds, the Flyers’ lone black player, who recently got in some hot water for just maybe calling opponent Sean Avery “a faggot” during an on-ice fight. (The league didn’t discipline him, ruling the evidence for what he said inconclusive.)
Simmonds is as calm and direct as he would be talking about his slap shot in fielding my questions, including the one he knows is coming, about his controversy last fall. “If people think I’m homophobic, they’ve got me wrong, they don’t know me at all. … I’m a minority in a sport, and I don’t discriminate against anyone.”
That’s not exactly a denial, but on the other hand—as Lower Merion High alum Kobe Bryant could tell you—a lot of stuff gets said in the heat of the moment.
STILL, THERE’S A NEW DAY COMING, and I’ve met him. Will Sheridan is 26 years old. He lives in New York, where he’s a fledgling hip-hop artist starting to get small gigs—in October, he performed before 4,500 people back at Villanova, where he graduated in 2007. Surely everyone in the audience was well aware of Will’s sexual orientation, since he “tells my narrative” in his music. And he’s been publicly out since May. But back when he was playing basketball on the Main Line, it was trickier. Some knew. Others guessed.
Will came out to his freshman roommate, teammate Mike Nardi, who said, “Okay, dude, as long as you don’t smell my underwear or anything.” Not a problem. His other teammates would learn informally. It didn’t seem to matter to anybody. There was never a team meeting to discuss Will’s orientation or awkward moments in the shower or any of the rank homophobia a lot of people assume flows from jocks.
But not everything was rosy. Will is from the small town of Bear, Delaware, where he’d been class president, dated pretty girls, been a renowned athlete. His parents were both cops. Their backgrounds, and his life story up to the age of 19, when he came out to them, didn’t match.
His mother came around pretty fast. His father was a different story. He and Will didn’t talk for a year. Will went to his coach, Jay Wright, as well as a school counselor, for support. But given that his parents were going through a divorce, the true family problem (at least from Will’s perspective) was easy to hide.
The fans of archrival St. Joe’s were onto him, though. The two teams played some games at the Palestra, on the edge of Penn’s campus. Will dated a male Penn grad student quite openly for a period. Word had spread. Plus he had this odd way of running on his toes. (“That’s just the way I run!” he laughs.) Which meant at games—in classic Philly tradition—the taunts from St. Joe’s fans cut to the core: “Will Sheridan, what’s dick taste like?” they chanted, fast, as if they were nailing a flaw in his jump shot.