By Jason Keidel
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There were no gays where I grew up. They were caricatures, weirdos and warped predators looming behind some Central Park tree ready to snatch a child and bury him by the reservoir.
It’s not just how I felt, it’s how everyone felt. Homosexuality was more plague than preference. When I was 15 I went to the YMCA on 63rd and Central Park West on Saturdays to play basketball with my boys. Once, in the locker room after the game, an older man asked me if I wanted a tour of the place. I knew exactly what he meant and ran the hell out of there. That was my idea of a gay man.
It’s all gibberish now. The man who wanted to take me on his twisted tour wasn’t gay. He was sick. It could just as easily have been girls he was after. The sexual predisposition of any human has nothing to do with criminal behavior, but you couldn’t say that 30 years ago. And if you did, no one would believe you. Hell, they gave us AIDS! We actually thought that at one time.
So when I heard Kris Jenkins tell Boomer & Carton this morning that he wants gay NFL players to come out of the closet so that we can finally bust down the walls of prejudice, I almost crashed my car.
It never occurred to me that there were gay pro football players. And that only speaks to my stupidity. Why wouldn’t there be? My first love, boxing, was the sport of the first openly gay athlete that I’m aware of: Emile Griffith. Griffith literally killed a man who uttered a gay slur his way. Surely that’s not the way to retort, but one can only imagine what it was like to be black, Hispanic and, yes, gay 50 years ago.
If you’ve ever seen the transcendent HBO series, “The Wire,” then you’ll recall the notorious gangster named Omar Little. Omar, shotgun in hand, robbed drug dealers. And he was gay. And there was nothing awkward about it. But that was fiction. NFL players coming out of the closet is an entirely different proposition. Would they risk injury on the field, in the huddle, in the locker room? Maybe this is rhetorical and we’ve evolved so thoroughly that the matter is moot. But the fact that no one has done it suggests otherwise.
Beyond the obvious athletic splendor, sports are great because they double as a trial balloon for societal aesthetics, from Jack Johnson to Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali to Curt Flood to Title IX. If it works on the grass, diamond or hardwood, it eventually makes its way to our realm. But prejudice is subtle and stubborn.
Would you still root for the Patriots if you learned Tom Brady were gay? Eli Manning? What about Big Ben from my beloved black and gold?
It’s a fascinating question, and not one that many of us would answer honestly. It’s easy to say, “Yeah, sure. Of course I’d root for my team,” with a certain certainty, if not indignation. “Why would you even ask?”
Because virility and athletic prowess are so strongly linked to heterosexuality, it’s almost impossible to see our bias through the prism of latent, if not implicit, homophobia.
I’d like to think I’d love my Steelers no matter whom Big Ben bedded every night. But my prehistoric sensibilities are so ingrained that I can’t say with absolute clarity what I’d do. I have gay friends. And I’m proud of it. But what if I’m in a sports bar with my Hines Ward jersey and someone says my QB should be wearing pumps instead of cleats? We’d probably take the idea outside and sort it out like barbarians.
Lip service is easy, but locker rooms are not nearly as delicate or refined. Part of political correctness is accepting that the pendulum has swung so far the other way that it borders on the absurd. We can’t even hint at an ethnic joke now, despite the fact that most of us made fun of each other our entire childhoods based entirely on the way we look.
I was called “Casper” and “The Human Torch” and “Opie” on a regular basis. And since snapping — what we called joking in the ‘80s — was my specialty, I gave it back twofold. We can’t even think of such innocuous insults in our uber-sensitive society now, but back in the day we had a way of governing ourselves.
Except with gays. When I consider my ignorance in 1985 compared to 1995, you’d think I were two different people.
Eventually, gays and lesbians will be as accepted and acclimated as anyone else. You just wonder when, and how far along we’ve come.
Perhaps the NFL will tell us.
Offer your thoughts on Keidel’s take in the comments section below…