Sheryl Swoopes' coming-out party was only a couple of hours old Wednesday morning on ESPN.com when a passionately angry e-mail splashed down in my in-box.
It was a friend of mine -- an athletic administrator at a high-level Division I-A school. One of the most competent and respected professionals I know in college athletics. He's also a gay man.
He hasn't come out, not yet. Ask him a direct question about his orientation and he probably wouldn't deny it -- but the risks remain. In the machismo-drenched world of male team sports, admitting you're gay is like skydiving without checking your parachute.
You hope for a soft landing, but it's still a leap of faith that could end up going very, very wrong.
And now Sheryl Swoopes is close to pushing him out.
Swoopes' public declaration in ESPN The Magazine that she is a lesbian was not the contentious issue with my friend. The issue was the following quote from Swoopes:
- "The talk about the WNBA being full of lesbians is not true. There are as many straight women in the league as there are gay. What really irritates me is when people talk about football, baseball and the NBA, you don't hear all of this talk about the gay guys playing. But when you talk about the WNBA, then it becomes an issue."
Here's what my friend wrote in response to that quote:
"Uh, Earth to Sheryl -- it irritates the gay guys in football, baseball and the NBA a helluva lot more than you not to hear all of this talk about the gay guys playing.
"I and every other gay guy in sports live every day with the fact that it's OK to be a lesbian in sports but not a gay guy. It hurts like hell and is life-altering and causes you to live with fear. God knows how many hundreds and thousands of gay men in the NBA and NFL and at Nebraska and Texas and in high schools and peewee football through the years have gone through denial and hell and even killed themselves because if they're themselves they will be ridiculed, shunned, shut out, beat up and called fags. We gotta be in the closet and they don't, and she comes out with THIS quote and is a hero all of a sudden?"
And there you have it. Sheryl Swoopes opened a door and a dialogue this week. The importance of that should not be minimized, nor should the fortitude required to step up and speak out. But what will take considerably more courage is for a man to do the same thing.
He will not just open a door but burst a dam: the man playing a team sport who announces -- in midcareer, name attached -- that he is gay.
"It's the last closet door to be broken down," my friend said. "And it's a deep, deep, deep closet."
It's also a deeply ingrained double standard.
Statistically speaking, there are a handful of gay men on every Division I-A college football team. There are undoubtedly gay men in every other team sport, as well. But the stigma attached to being a gay jock as opposed to a lesbian jock is overwhelming.
The stereotypical lesbian is a tomboy, and tomboys, stereotypically, play sports. So a significant lesbian-athlete population -- whether out of the closet or in -- is more or less expected.
When Martina Navratilova or Sheryl Swoopes or any number of star female athletes stand up and say who they are, the general reaction has been muted respect. Certainly, it is not shock or scandal or widespread condemnation. Not anymore -- nor should it be.
The stereotypical gay male is a different deal altogether. He's typecast as effeminate -- and there is nothing riskier in a male locker room than being considered lacking in manly qualities. Telling the world there are hundreds of gay male flight attendants, for instance, would be less newsworthy than telling the world there are hundreds of gay male athletes.
Standing up and admitting to being gay in a male team-sports environment requires either a death wish or more guts than any well-known active athlete has yet been able to summon.
"It's going to take somebody being really angry," my friend said. "There's going to have to be a catalyst. Somebody who's fed up with things. It's almost like you need five or six people to go out together as a coalition, to make it OK.
"Or what if [two current baseball stars] were in love? Really in love, and didn't want to hide it anymore. It's going to take love or anger."
For my friend, the prevailing emotion right now is anger.
In two decades in college athletics, my friend has listened to countless fag jokes and tried to laugh along with them -- because if he didn't, someone might wonder why.
He won't play along anymore.
"Now it makes you angry," he said. "You totally lose respect for the person saying it. And you feel pity for that person."
I asked my friend what the drawbacks were to his coming out. He said that, aside from a conversation with a couple of head coaches at his school, there are few he could envision.
"I think college coaches might be concerned that it's used against them in recruiting," he said, but added that today's teenagers are less susceptible to gay scare tactics and more accepting of alternative lifestyles.
"That's changed," he said. "You still hear 'So-and-so's a fag' from players, but not as much as in the old days. This generation, they have a lot of out gay friends outside of sports. They live in a different society."
Still, it's not different enough for my friend to come out. Not now. He's not ready to put himself totally out there, announcing himself as a gay man in the machismo-intensive world of college sports.
"I'm still a coward for being quoted anonymously," he said. "In the end, this manifests itself in fear. Fear is what you live with."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.