It’s a long, thin room inside the NovaCare complex, where the eagles peel off their uniforms after practice.
Lockers line both sides. As they strip, players toss shirts and socks and jocks into big mobile laundry baskets before heading to a wide opening in the middle of the room, the doorway that leads to the showers, off-limits to everyone but them.
Mike Patterson is a load of a man, chunky, 300 pounds. He anchors the middle of the Eagles’ defensive line. He’s still in his uniform pants and a t-shirt when I stop at his locker to ask him a question:
“How would you feel about having an openly gay teammate on the Eagles?”
He smiles. Coach Andy Reid has already warned his team that I’d be coming in to ask some questions. He told his players not to be offended, that they shouldn’t take it personally. Patterson has a long, dark, wispy beard and appears young—he’s 28. He looks almost cherubic.
“Would it be a problem?” I wonder.
“I don’t know, man,” he says. “Probably be an issue at first, probably—going to be uncomfortable at first, I should say. I don’t know, kind of tough to say. It could work out, most definitely, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy. … ”
“What would be hard about it?”
“Just the fact that, guys worried that he’d peep down, and stuff like that, make people uncomfortable … ”
“‘Peep down,’ did you say?”
Patterson smiles. Yes, that’s what he said. Guys checking out guys. “I don’t know—I mean, people just feel uncomfortable.”
“Would you feel uncomfortable?” I ask him.
“Makes an uncomfortable situation—makes me uncomfortable.”
“Have you ever played with a gay player?”
“Not that I know of,” Mike Patterson says, laughing.
It’s kind of an amazing thing, I tell him, that there are currently 3,400 men playing in the four major sports—football, baseball, basketball and hockey—and not one is openly gay. That’s pretty strange, when you think about it.
Mike Patterson just laughs.
I TALKED TO SOME 20 EAGLES PLAYERS about having a gay teammate. And I got the feeling, going around that locker room after practice, that I’d entered a time warp: Having a gay teammate would be troublesome for many Eagles—especially sharing the shower—but it was more than that. For many players it was, in fact, a brand-new idea:
“Never thought about it. Never happened.”
“That would be different.”
“Wow. I don’t know, man.”
Only one player, fullback Owen Schmitt, was certain that he’d ever had a gay teammate—and that was in college. Though a few realized that, yeah, it probably was the case that they’d been tackled by and had sweated with and smacked the butt of and even got naked in the showers next to a teammate who was … gay.
There’s no doubt that some of our prime Philadelphia sporting heroes—players we’ve rooted for over the years—are gay. A lot of them, in fact. Just do the math. A generally accepted rule of thumb suggests that 10 percent of the population is homosexual. There are more than 100 players currently on our four local pro teams. So it’s clear that whatever teams we get behind, some of the players we’re now applauding or booing are gay. Over the years, of course, thousands of athletes have graced the Philly sporting scene. Scores of them were undoubtedly gay, too.
We care so deeply about favorite players, especially from our youth: Mike Schmidt. Bobby Clarke. Reggie White. Julius Erving. And then we go right on rooting and caring: Mike Vick. Chase Utley. LeSean McCoy. It’s an intense connection we feel, even a shared identity. We may wear a star’s uniform jersey on big-game days. Or the kids do. Or our spouse.
But what if Julius Erving or Mike Schmidt or Shady McCoy were gay?
In fact, a recent Phillies player, a renowned womanizer, has been rumored to be quite interested in men. There are whispers in gay circles about him picking up men at Knock, a bar on Washington Square West, and taking them back to his condo. Phillies insiders still murmur about his bisexuality.
Imagine, then, that you find out who that player is. Imagine he is, in fact, one of your favorites, that his name is … Cliff Lee.
OHHHHH! NOOOOO! Not Cliff. It couldn’t be Cliff.
Well, you’re right. It isn’t Cliff. Cliff Lee is married, and there’s not a shred of evidence I’m aware of that he’s gay or bisexual.
But as you can see, this is tricky business, this meshing of the fantasy of our sports heroes and their actual lives. Woe to the athlete who reveals a piece of himself—a real piece—that simply doesn’t fit that fantasy. That, in fact, might destroy it. Is it any wonder gay athletes are so private?
Brian Sims is a Philly lawyer now running for the state legislature and a former football star at Bloomsburg; he came out as gay at the end of his senior year a decade ago (and was utterly accepted by his teammates). Sims knows three current, closeted NFL players, and he reached out to them to see if they’d talk to me; he told them I wouldn’t reveal their identities, and he never told me who they are. They all said no, and one emailed back in outrage to Sims, who paraphrased the response for me:
WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? I told you from the get-go, I’m not coming out. You PROMISED an anonymous conversation. Just telling anyone we talked breaks our deal.
That I would even know of this player’s existence—though he would remain nameless—set him off. Now that’s fear.
Yet maybe, in this day and age, staying in the closet isn’t actually necessary. Maybe we’re ready now to accept a big-time gay athlete. Would fans—and a player’s teammates—really have that much of a problem if a player on the Eagles stood up and shared that part of himself?
PRO SPORTS IS CURRENTLY IN A BIND. As American society has moved, albeit slowly, toward more acceptance of gays, with more gays in prominent positions, with the end of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, with legalized same-sex marriage most recently passing in New York, with teenagers—even in small towns—openly exploring their sexual orientation, pro sports is starting to look like a backwater. It might be the last institutional bastion of homophobia, the final place where gays feel the need to stay firmly in the closet.
Even in sports, though, the ground is shifting. Over the past year, especially, there’s been “a change in the atmosphere,” Jim Buzinski, co-founder of Outsports.com, an online magazine for gay athletes and fans, told New York magazine. As high-school and college players are coming out, the pro leagues are at last beginning to take on homophobia in their ranks. During last year’s NBA playoffs, a stunning league commercial appeared: A teenage player calls another player’s moves “gay,” and then two members of the Phoenix Suns appear:
Grant Hill: “Using gay to mean dumb or stupid—not cool.”
Jared Dudley: “Not in my house—not anywhere.”
Coincidentally, just before the ad first appeared, the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant called a referee a “faggot” in a fit of rage, presumably not actually addressing his sexual proclivities but delivering the classic put-down of his manhood. League commissioner David Stern wasn’t having it: He fined Bryant $100,000, and the star apologized.
Other leagues have stepped up: At least seven baseball teams (including the Phillies) have done “It Gets Better” videos, which offer support to isolated gay teens.
Meanwhile, several sports-world gays have gone public with their sexual orientation. In short order last spring, Will Sheridan, who graduated from Villanova in 2007 after four years starting on the basketball team, Rick Welts, a longtime Phoenix Suns executive and now president of the Warriors, and Jaren Max, an ESPN radio host, came out.
Former 76er Charles Barkley weighed in on the new openness in his blunt style, telling the Washington Post in the wake of the Kobe Bryant dustup, “I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play. … Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin’ idiot. … Every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person.”
With all this, wouldn’t an openly gay pro player soon follow?
Well, at some point, but no one knows when. The danger of the locker room is one thing, but there is also immense pressure on players not to do anything to destroy the dream of playing pro ball. What’s more, the first guy who comes out, that’s how he’ll be remembered: as the Jackie Robinson of gay rights. While we applaud Robinson’s bravery in crossing baseball’s color line, we tend to forget that he could have made the Hall of Fame simply because he was a great player.
That’s a lot for a pro to trade: acknowledgement that he’s one of the best athletes in the world for the rocky road of social justice.
THERE ARE CERTAINLY ON-THE-DOWN-LOW WHISPERS of pro players who are out to teammates. John Amaechi, a former NBA player who came out publicly in 2007, says he knows of many active gay players in football, baseball and basketball. How many? “Put it this way,” Amaechi says in his deep baritone. “If they got together, it would not be a small meeting.”
Yet there’s a very short list of gay pro players in the four major men’s sports who have ever come out: Dave Kopay, Roy Simmons and Esera Tuaola in football; Amaechi in basketball; Glenn Burke and Billy Bean in baseball. That’s it. And all of them waited until they retired. No pro has ever come out while he’s still playing.
NFL running back Dave Kopay was the pioneer, revealing his sexual orientation to the Washington Star in 1975, two years after he left the NFL. “I was totally blasted by the sports world,” Kopay says from his home near the University of Washington, where he played college ball. Kopay recounts that Mike McCormack, coach of the Eagles when Kopay came out—and an assistant coach when Kopay played for the Washington Redskins—responded, “My reaction was one of sickness. I don’t know firsthand of any homosexuality, and I don’t know where it would fit in.”
Kopay’s NFL career began in 1963, six years before the Stonewall riots in New York famously protested police raids on homosexuals; not only were gays assumed to be nonexistent in sports, they could barely breathe anywhere. Kopay himself was a mix of confusion and desire. He knew he was gay, but didn’t want to be labeled as one of the “fags and fairies” his teammates habitually cursed. With his first NFL paycheck, Kopay bought his parents a color TV and flew his college friend Ted to San Francisco for a weekend. They went drinking with some of Kopay’s teammates, ostensibly looking for women, even though, just as in college, Kopay and Ted ended up in bed together. (In the morning, the previous night hadn’t happened.) Things never got better for Kopay. Teammate John Brodie introduced him to a stewardess; a psychiatrist put him under hypnosis and insisted getting married was the cure. The marriage was a disaster.
Now 69, Dave Kopay lives alone. He has no love life. Yet he’s not bitter as much as still raw, as if it’s still 1975, as if he’s frozen in the intensity of his solitary stand. And when you consider the dearth of gay players who have gone public, and the way homosexuality is still viewed in some quarters in America, his pain is wrenching: “Being gay is not a preference at all. It’s being in the right place at the right time to be held and loved—it’s that, period. I don’t give a shit what people say. Love doesn’t have a gender.”
John Amaechi, a very tall Englishman who came to America with a dream of making it in the NBA, first had sex with a man in a bathroom stall at Penn State, where he was a star center in the mid-’90s. By then, AIDS had ravaged the gay community for more than a decade, and Magic Johnson had startled the sports world by announcing he was HIV-positive. (He’d contracted the disease, he assured us, not from a man, but from one of the many women he’d slept with.)
At Penn State, it didn’t take long for Amaechi to come across graffiti scrawled in the Rec Hall locker room: AMAECHI’S A BIG FAG. Since it was surrounded by better stuff about him—GREAT GUY, ROLE MODEL, TERRIFIC PLAYER—he simply scratched out the homophobia and left the rest. Denial intact, he made it out of Penn State as a two-time academic All-American. Yet while “gay sports star” was still oxymoronic, Amaechi’s placid understanding that he preferred men was miles apart from Kopay’s alarming discovery.
Not that his equanimity helped him all that much. In the NBA—after exploring his sexuality playing overseas in Greece and Italy—Amaechi avoided relationships altogether, knowing he could never be public with any partner. On the road, he would often have to listen to a married teammate in the next motel room screw the night away with someone certainly not his wife.
Things changed when he signed a lucrative multi-year contract with the Utah Jazz, gaining some sense of freedom. Amaechi wasn’t quite ready to risk hitting gay clubs late at night, but he was perfectly willing to walk down the street with “a posse of flamboyant gay guys” in Salt Lake City at high noon. He was testing the boundaries, and soon discovered exactly where they lay.
Amaechi believes he was traded from Utah in 2003 because hard-ass coach Jerry Sloan knew he was gay. He is certain his teammates knew. And that word had gotten around.
In fact, after Sloan shipped him off to Houston, Amaechi heard from Jazz employees that Sloan had called him “a fag,” a discovery Amaechi included in 2007’s Man in the Middle, the book he wrote after retiring. Few in the sporting world raised an eyebrow in Sloan’s direction over that.
EAGLES DEFENSIVE LINEMAN TRENT COLE gave a good long laugh when I asked if his team would accept an openly gay player, and another lineman, Darryl Tapp, said, after a long pause, that it would “take a lot of getting used to.” Yet another lineman, Juqua Parker, heard the question and said, “Oh no, I can’t do that, I can’t do that. I can’t talk about that.” Even new cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, advertised as a sophisticated guy, was silent for a long moment in considering whether he’d have a problem with a gay teammate, then said: “You know, I don’t know.”
But I also found a thoughtful, everybody’s-welcome attitude among many Eagles when I asked about gay teammates.
“A lot of guys who are open-minded would be fine with it,” guard Evan Mathis told me. “The way I hear guys talk sometimes, I think some guys might be a little affected by it. I’d be fine with it.”
I wondered what the hardest part for a gay player coming out would be—teammates, endorsements, the media?
“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.
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.
And so Brian Sims, the Center City lawyer running for the state legislature in large part to address backward laws about employment and fair access and adoption for gays, who has spoken to some 50 colleges to help administrators and students deal with the new reality of gay athletes, has heard from three closeted pros. Bravo, they tell him. Keep fighting the good fight.
I believe I understand their fear, even that of the player who lambasted Sims just for sharing, with me, the fact of his existence.
Because athletes in our prime sports are actors in a particular sort of drama. I witnessed a minor moment at an Eagles practice that said a lot: Asante Samuel was defending receiver Riley Cooper on a pass that was off the mark, turning Cooper around and exposing him to a big hit to the ribs, though Asante merely hammered him with “Oh, that’s going to get you fucked up, Riley!” Always on the line, in the man-vs.-man wars of football, is your very survival.
Which ramps up the Wild West hyper-machismo bravado that runs through that sport especially. Players will gladly accept a quarterback who went to prison for murdering dogs (our very own Michael Vick), or a wide receiver who shot himself with the illegal gun he’d taken into a nightclub (Plaxico Burress), or a defensive back who has constant run-ins with the law (Pacman Jones), or teammates who beat their wives (take your pick). They get arrested, apologize, maybe do some time, and then return with their machismo often enhanced. No wonder gay players stay silent and hidden.
Of course, we fans think the same way. A gladiator on our football team who sweeps in for the quarterback kill—what if we found out that in his spare time, he was chasing other … men? There’s a reason Rock Hudson (and every other gay leading man in Hollywood since Rock Hudson) didn’t reveal his sexual orientation: The fantasy up there on the screen might be destroyed. Is the risk of meshing the real and imaginary any different when it comes to our sports heroes? Given that what they’re playing is much more than a game, the answer, still, is no.