Reacting to the Will Sheridan reaction

Yesterday brought a strange confluence of gay-men-in-team-sports stories.

Of course, there was Will Sheridan's fascinating story of his semi-open lifestyle among his Villanova teammates during his college years, as written brilliantly by our own Dana O'Neil. Before Sheridan's tale went live, the New York Times published the story of longtime NBA executive Rick Welts, who decided to publicly reveal his sexual orientation after decades in the closet.

The ensuing conversation -- where do gay male athletes, long seen as would-be outcasts and pariahs, stand in the current jock culture? -- rightfully ruled the day. Sheridan appeared on ESPN's Outside the Lines. Welts spoke with the B.S. Report's Bill Simmons.

Tweets flew. Blogs reacted. Commenters commented. But for a few unfortunate examples, which I'll go ahead and choose to ignore here, the reaction was overwhelmingly encouraging. Many seemed to wonder what all the ruckus was actually about. Surprisingly, even some of the negative reactions seemed to focus on whether the story was newsworthy or not: "So what if the guy's gay? Why do I care?"

Guess what? That should be the reaction. That's how Sheridan's teammates felt. The old tropes about a gay athlete undermining his team's locker room didn't apply through four successful seasons at Villanova. Why should they apply anywhere else?

Sheridan's story was especially interesting -- beyond the basic premise, of course -- because it spoke to a generational gap. His friends, roommates and teammates had no problem with their friend's sexuality. It wasn't a constant topic of conversation. It just was. Meanwhile, Sheridan's father continues to struggle with his son's identity, even as he slowly learns to accept it.

That got me thinking: Could college sports lead the way? Discrimination toward homosexuals is much less common among younger demographics; the younger you are, the less likely you are to be intolerant toward sexual orientations that aren’t your own. College athletes are, you know, young. Maybe it's easier for a college athlete to be openly gay among members of his peer group than it would be for an NBA player who counts among his teammates longtime veterans whose attitudes were defined during earlier, less tolerant decades. We're just a few years removed from longtime NBA veteran Tim Hardaway's infamous "I hate gay people" rant. Maybe guys like that are still in the NBA. Maybe the unenlightened attitudes are still too prevalent for professionals to adapt so quickly. Maybe college hoopsters can set the example.

That might be some rambling wishful thinking, but if comments like the following from TNT and CBS analyst Charles Barkley are any indication, maybe some level of encouragement is warranted. Because Barkley is absolutely dead-on here. From the Washington Post:

After all, Barkley has no doubt he played with several gay teammates. “I didn’t think it . . . they were gay,” he said [...]. The Hall-of-Fame player and TNT analyst added he was certain he had gay teammates “on two of three teams I played on.”

“First of all, every player has played with gay guys. It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say, ‘Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.’ First of all, quit telling me what I think. 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,” Barkley said. “I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person."

That last bit is simple math. If you assume a certain percentage of the male population is homosexual, then at least some portion of that percentage will make its way into collegiate and professional sports locker rooms. Acting like that's not the case is ignorance. Acting like Sheridan’s story will suddenly change the nature of that locker room is ignorance. Sometimes the ignorance is chosen. Sometimes it's a default setting. But as anyone with a gay friend can tell you, that's not how things work, whether on the field or off.

Granted, there are larger concerns in the professional realm. Would being openly gay hurt endorsement possibilities? Doubtful. Would it be a prohibitive, media-driven distraction? That seems more valid. Maybe college, a more sheltered media environment where there aren't millions of personal endorsement dollars on the line, is a better place to take on some of these barriers.

Either way, the barriers are there. It's going to take a very brave person to be the first to actively confront them in the midst of a playing career, whether that career is at the collegiate or professional level.

Eventually, it will happen. In the meantime, it's clear the conversation is changing. The shock and disbelief that might have accompanied Sheridan's announcement 10 or 15 years ago seems to be fading. Now, for the most part, people -- including longtime NBA guys like Charles Barkley -- are reacting the same way Sheridan's teammates did:

Wait ... what's the big deal?

That's not about agenda, or your political beliefs, or your religious code, or anything else. That's about accepting people for who they are.

If sports retain any measure of cultural importance in 2011, that's why: On the floor, it doesn't matter what you look like, where you're from, or how much money you have. Team sports, from youth soccer to "Monday Night Football," are about what you earn and how you earn it. They test equally. They teach universally. That's why this stuff matters.

Someday soon, we'll be able to add "who you date" to that list of non-qualifiers. These games we love so much -- and the lessons they teach -- will only be better for it.