Worse, he got Facebook messages from opposing fans threatening to kill him—drunken idiots. Will didn’t go to the police. He simply locked down his Facebook account. But he had moments of paranoia. Will is convinced he googled “Will Sheridan gay” so much himself that he made it a preferred search, a self-fulfilling prophecy of exposure.
But worry isn’t something that hangs over Will. He is handsome, polite and rangy, a natural performer. He loves to talk. Sitting with him at a sushi restaurant in New York, I realized that he just might be the most confident, self-possessed 26-year-old I’ve ever met. One who is taken to saying things like: “I knew what I wanted early on. … I’ve been living my life for a really long time, it feels like. So I’m an old soul. … I think there’s a void right now for openly gay black men in entertainment, in sports, in culture. And I think that’s what I am. I think that’s a very powerful thing.”
Coming out, Will says, has been utterly positive: “All the negative stuff was before I came out. Because people persecute you for not owning it when you are and they know it.” Yet it’s not clear whether we’re about to see gays in the pros comfortable enough to come out of the closet—or whether we’re still a half-decade away. A lot of observers believe it won’t be an established player (“Hello, my name is LeBron … ”) who proclaims his orientation. Instead, it will be some kid who’s good, very good, and comes out in high school, where he’s the big star. He’s so good, he gets recruited to some big-time Division I school, where he’s openly gay and becomes one of the best players in the nation.
Think he wouldn’t be drafted by a pro team? Think a progressive company like Nike wouldn’t see a huge marketing opportunity? A Will Sheridan with a little more talent would be pure gold, lapping up mega-endorsements in his free-form glory. And then the almost universal answer I got in the Eagles locker room—“Yeah, some guys would have problems with it”—well, what could players do? They’d have to deal.
YET MAYBE WE’RE NOT QUITE READY for a big-time pro athlete in Philadelphia who’s gay. One prominent local gay man—not an athlete—tells me the undercurrent of homophobia in this city is the reason he isn’t about to announce his sexual orientation to the world. But I begin wondering about pressure of another kind: Does our gay community think it’s a little weird—weak, even—that in this day and age, no gay pro has the courage to step out of the closet?
I spend an evening at Woody’s, the city’s best-known gay bar, to ask how guys there feel about closeted gay pros. Isn’t it a little absurd that no gay pro has stepped out?
But I find something other than judgment—quite the opposite, in fact. A rugby player and former college wrestler named Tyler tells me, “We’ve all been through the pain of coming out. Physical pain doesn’t compare—doesn’t compare to what I felt.”
“To each his own pace,” agrees Steven, a bartender who has watched the shifting landscape of gay life in the city from his perch at Woody’s for 30 years.
The warmth and ease among patrons here is eye-opening. And it’s exactly what closeted pro players are missing—they’re now spectators to a gay world that is, at least in some places, open and free. Will Sheridan had me laughing, talking about walking on his toes with prancing freedom through his Brooklyn Bed-Stuy neighborhood and getting flagged by a street guy as that “very tall gay black man.” Loneliness—being cut off from themselves—is the sad lament of all the closeted pros who came out after playing; now, being closeted stands in even starker contrast to a gay community in full stride.
Meanwhile, Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports, has worked up a lather at closeted pros (and their agents) for not coming forward, for not caring enough and doing what they can as beacons of hope for lost youth. “How many gay kids have to kill themselves before somebody decides they have to do something about it?” he wonders.
Which is an awful lot to ask. But that’s where the light’s beginning to shine—onto closeted gay pros.
As little as 10 years ago, players could hide behind the notion that no 300-pound footballer could possibly be gay. John Amaechi talks about the momentary comfort of focusing simply on being an athlete, and leaving his “personal life in a box, under the bed.”
The message is getting louder: No more.