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Monday, February 10, 2014

Michael Sam and me … and all of us ...


I think it’s great. The NFL is made up of great athletes, no doubt, and it is a fact that a gay-free NFL never existed prior to this story, but it’s certainly high time the homophobes in the league cut their losses and adapt (or go play somewhere else).

Before I get too harsh on those sporting homophobic lip service in the NFL (or anywhere), it’s Confession time here at TK.

First off, I was guilty of cracking locker room gay jokes as a football player in both high school and college, and if that wasn’t bad enough, it became worse when I did so as a coach. I was an assistant coach at Brooklyn College for one seasons (plus) when I was in my mid 20’s (and just a few years out of my college locker room in Minot, North Dakota). I coached linebackers the first year and the offensive line part of the second season.

Meant to get a laugh and/or show my players that I was cool, hip, one of them, etc., I would sometimes stare at my linebackers and/or offensive linemen, either before or after agility drills, in a group meeting, etc., and say: “This has to be the ugliest position on the team. I’ll assume you’re all gay, too.”

All of them would laugh, and one or two would point to another player and say, “No coach, just _____’s gay.” More general laughter would ensue, and the other asinine assumption I’d make was: No harm, no foul. None of these kids are gay, right? Hell, they’re linebackers/offensive linemen for Christ’s sake. It’s just impossible that they’re gay.

Please note that that kind of talk (what I said to my position players) was never sanctioned by our head coach and/or the school. I’m sure they never knew what I was saying when I was alone with my position players. It was something I believed at the time was both funny and bonding. No coach of mine ever used it on me, not in high school or in college. In fact, all of my coaches in both high school and college were very adamant about discriminatory comments/jokes/statements of any kind. They simply weren’t tolerated.

Unfortunately, that brand of policing never existed in any locker room I ever experienced. Gay jokes/bashing was cool, a way to blend in, a method by which you not only proved you weren’t gay yourself, you had to be one of the guys (the real guys, or what too many NFL executives today are calling “a man’s man”). It’s something that took on a life of its own, probably from when we were kids on the streets repeating some of the dumb shit we heard from older kids and/or our parents. Nevertheless, it was commonplace and wrong, but not enough of us understood the consequences of those types of jokes. At best, it was our ignorance, pure and simple, but that couldn’t diminish the hurt it would inflict on anyone who was gay.

I believe that people can make bigoted comments without actually being bigots (and that works for both sides of the racial and sexual divide). I once worked with an African-American guy who was as nice as anyone I’d ever met. The day after Floyd Mayweather defeated Arturo Gatti, my good friend said to another African-American, “Mayweather knocked the shit out of the white MF’er.”

I was shocked and hurt, and although our relationship was never the same afterward, I’m sure in my heart that that guy was not/is not a racist. He was comfortable saying stupid shit to somebody he felt safe saying it to (like many of us no doubt have done in our past). Even if he was rooting for Mayweather to defeat Gatti based on race, I don’t believe in my heart the guy was a racist. I think he said something stupid.

When I think about how I might’ve insulted and/or worse some kid I was coaching who may have been gay (I don’t actually know if any were or weren’t gay—there really isn’t a way to discern sexuality), my dopey attempt at a bonding speech and/or a joke embarrasses me (today) no end, and my embarrassment and shame is appropriate. It is exactly the kind of thing my sister had warned me about growing up. “You think you’re being funny, but that’s hurtful shit,” she once told me after I had imitated an effeminate voice.

Backtrack: I first dealt with gay issues when I walked in on my sister and her girlfriend during her senior year of high school. They were in her bed under the sheets together when I walked in asking about our dog. My sister and her friend giggled and told me to get lost, etc., but afterward, once her friend left, my sister came downstairs and we had a full-blown discussion about it.

This next section is lifted from my MFA thesis, The 2nd Coming … it’s a Second Person fictional memoir based on my insignificant life and … Jesus? Oh, boy, well … this next section was a conversation (as best I could remember it) between my sister and myself the day I caught her and her girlfriend under the sheets.

1972: Catch 22 ...

You ask if she took the dog out, but what you hear through her bedroom door you’ve just knocked on is a lot of giggling, and it isn’t just your sister’s giggling. You knock again, louder this time, and the giggling begins anew, also louder. So you open the door and there’s your sister and her girlfriend, ______, under the sheets.

“Knuckleheads,” you say. “You walk the dog or not?” you ask your sister.

“No,” she says through a laugh.

“The hell is so funny?”

“Get out,” she says.

“Pair of fruits,” you say, then shake your head, step out and close the door behind you.

You move to the den and watch television from the love seat. ______ leaves a few minutes later. Your sister walks her out, both of them still giggling as they head up the short flight of stairs. When she returns, your sister stops at the bottom step and folds her arms.

“What did you call us before?” she says.

“A pair of fruits.”

“What’s that?”


“What’s that?”


“You know what that means?”

“You think I’m an idiot?” you say. “I know you’re gay.”

“Yeah, you’re an idiot,” she says, “but that’s beside the point. What does gay mean?”

“It means you like being under the sheets with another girl.”

She smiles. “You gonna tell Mom?”

“Why would I?”



“I’m thinking it’s time he knows.”

“So tell him.”

“I will. Next time I see him.”

She squints. You ask what her problem is, and she says, “How’d you get back in the house without us hearing?”

“Maybe you were busy doing something else.”

“Something else what? Do you know what we do?”

“You giggle a lot. I know that much.”

“Jerk. I’m being serious. Do you know?”

You’re not sure if she’s trying to educate or mock you, but you go along with it. “Yeah,” you say. “I know what you do, but you didn’t invent it.”

“Invent what?”

“Sex, moron.”

“I meant specifically.”

She clearly wants to tell you, even if it is in her own special way.

“Like I said, you didn’t invent it,” you say.

“It’s different for us.”

“How’s it different? Everybody does it.”

“How would you know that?”

“Like I said, you didn’t invent it.”

“I don’t know how to take that. Did you ever … ”

“Me and ____, you idiot.”

“Oh, gross,” she says, then mocks sticking a finger in her throat. “Yuck.”

You shake your head.

“Fine,” she says. “Do you really think Daddy’ll be upset?”

“Of course.”


“Because he’s a dinosaur. The only thing worse’d be if I told him I was gay. Then he might kill himself, but it wouldn’t be for my sake. He’d just be embarrassed.”

“What do you think he’ll say?”

“He’ll probably choke is what he’ll do. It won’t be easy for him to hear his daughter is a lesbian. He’s probably got other ideas for you.”

“Yeah, well, now he’ll have a real excuse for being embarrassed about me.”

You’re shocked. You can’t believe she feels the same way you do. She’s his favorite. She’s been his ambassador to make you feel like shit since you can remember. You say, “Embarrassed about you? You’re the special one. He thinks I’m a moron.”

“You are a moron.”

You flip her the bird. She calls you an idiot. You call her a queer. She laughs, and sucker that you are, you smile.

“Asshole,” she says, angry this time.

Now you’re fed up. “What are you breaking my balls for? Go back in your room and play with yourself.”

“I do, you know. Women do that, too.”

“Good for you and good for them.”

“You know what else we do?”

“Break balls.”

She flips you the bird. “And we use our mouths,” she says.

“Yeah, you eat each other. No shit? I already said, so do we.”

She chuckles. “Is that what you call it?”

“Eating someone, yeah. Big deal.”

“That’s so crude.”

“As opposed to using our mouths? It’s the same thing, imbecile.”

“You’re an imbecile,” she says, scowling this time. “Men are assholes.”

“Maybe because you can’t get any.”

Her eyes narrow. She’s hurt. “Fuck you,” she says.

You immediately feel guilty. “I was joking,” you say. “Take it easy.”

“No, you weren’t. That’s what you think because you’re a moron. Dad’ll think the same thing.”

“I said I’m sorry.”

“How dare he be disappointed in me, that prick.”

You swallow hard. “He’s a lot more disappointed in me. At least you do good in school.”

“You’re a fuckup. He’s disappointed in me because I’m not beautiful.”

Your feel her hurt in your soul. “He’s an asshole with stuff like that. You should hear the shit he tells me. He can’t help himself. He likes to put us down.”

She’s almost crying. “He is an asshole.”

“Yeah, he is, so forget about it. Don’t let him piss you off. Look at his wife. Mom says she’s a slut and a gold digger. She calls her Gang Bang.”

“He loves her.”

“Good for him and good for her. Who cares?”

“I hate her.”

“Me, too, but I don’t think about her like Mom. Gang Bang won the battle. Big fucking deal. She got him. What a prize.”

“He fucks with your head, too, so stop trying to blow it off.”

“I just said he does, didn’t I? I’m trying to keep you from crying, asshole.”

“I’m not crying now, jerk. I’m done crying over him.”

“Good. It’s about time.”

“And you’re still a jerk for saying that before. I can so get a man.”

“Great. Run for President.”

“Loser,” she says. “You are, you know. He’s right about that.”

“Here we go,” you say. “Got anything else on your mind?”

“Yeah, why’d he have us if he’s so disappointed?”

You do a double take. You know her pain is real. You want to help, but you need to be careful, your sister is a master of deception.

“I don’t know,” you say.

“First he had us and then he was disappointed. He left us and now he’s with that cunt he tried to have more kids with. I’m glad she lost the baby.”

Ouch, you didn’t know about the pregnancy. It hurts to learn of it like this, but you make believe you knew. “Me, too,” you lie.

“I hate her and I hate him.”

You’re still somewhat rocked. “Huh?”

“I said I hate them.”

“Oh,” you say.

“I can’t wait to tell him I’m queer.”

You’re still thinking about Thomas Rocco holding a new baby Jesus.

“First chance I get,” she says. “When he’s with all his dumb fuck friends in the city, all those losers he hangs out with, I’m going to say, ‘Daddy, didn’t you know I was gay?’”

“Sounds like a plan,” you say.

She wipes her nose with the sleeve of her shirt and gets up to use the bathroom. You remain in the den, unsure of whether you should leave. You hear her blowing her nose through the bathroom door and then she comes back out, looks at you and says, “Don’t spy on us anymore.”

You’re there, but you’re not there. “I wasn’t spying,” you say.

She’s staring at you, her eyebrows furrowed. You look up and say, “What?”

“You didn’t know she was pregnant,” she says.

You swallow hard again, then shake your head. No, you didn’t, but you can’t speak.


A few weeks later, my sister would tell my father that she was gay and it was a classic moment in Stella family history. We went to meet him at Miteras on the corner of McDougal Street and West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village. My father was talking to one of his wannabe wiseguy friends at the counter when we arrived. They were literally cracking gay jokes. My sister decided it was time to give him the hammer. Soon as his friend left and my father sat down with us, she said, “Daddy, didn’t you know I was gay?” His jaw dropped, and then he turned white. “No, I didn’t,” he said. My sister then left to get a Sunday NY Times from a street kiosk alongside Café Reggio. My father said to me, “That was like a kick in the balls.” I said to him, “Don’t do that, she’s your daughter.”

The problem is, of course, I used that gay joke/insult (mentioned above) on my linebackers some ten years later. Even after accepting homosexuality, I was using the vernacular that makes some feel ashamed of themselves and/or insulted. I think it’s one of the most common problems today (especially for athletes), repeating things without thinking of the consequences.

During another part of my life, very surprisingly to me, gay jokes/bashing (and racism) wasn’t nearly as common and/or popular as it was in locker rooms. Street guys, wiseguys, knockaround guys … call them what you want, but very few that I knew or associated with were out and out homophobes and/or racists. That’s not to say it didn’t exist, but it wasn’t as rampant as it was in locker rooms. I think the problem is more severe and commonplace in the major sports (not intentionally, but from the shit we pick up at a young age and carry around like a 500 pound gorilla for the sake of being accepted).

And it’s a damn shame.

How I wish I could take back all the dumb shit I’ve said in my life, but I can’t. And make no mistake, racial epithets at certain stages of my life were uttered just as ignorantly as were gay jokes, and I only wish I could take those back as well. Unfortunately, it was a part of our culture where I grew up to spew shit for the sake of being macho. Too many of us repeated the day-to-day shit we heard in and around Canarsie, and I doubt most of us even understood the implications of what we were saying, except it’s no excuse to not understand. My old man wasn’t big on cursing in the house, nor did he use racial epithets very often (although I can remember a few instances when he did so). I don’t think I ever heard him gay bash until I was fifteen or so (see thesis above). It was what we picked up in the blue collar streets and parks we played in that we too often repeated. Even so, I truly believe most of us knew right from wrong, but ironically said dumb shit amongst ourselves to feel bigger (more adult?) than we actually were. I don’t know a single actual racist kid I grew up with from Canarsie. Not one, yet Canarsie became famous for racial violence (including firebombing a real estate agency that sold to blacks before the great white flight of the 1970’s took place while I was away in college).
I will say this, football (and athletics in general) put an end to my racial epithets much faster than gay jokes/bashing. (See, Canarsie—The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism—it is a wonderful study of the subject that can be found here). Ultimately, it is education and meeting other people and growing (the fuck) up that teaches us how little we know about anything in this life. For me, it was football that helped speed that plow.

For those who have never uttered racial epithets and/or engaged in telling gay jokes or gay bashing, I tip my hat to you. In all seriousness, you deserve whatever heaven awaits. I’m not sure I personally know of anyone who has never done so, but I’m sure there are some people who were confident enough to hold their own water rather than give in to a crowd (whatever the crowd may have been, to include parents and/or other adults). That is not to blame the crowd, make no mistake. I suspect it is more a lack of confidence in oneself to do the right thing and stay quiet (or walk away) than it is the fault of any crowd/situation.

Last year during the Zimmerman trial, I read somewhere on Facebook how some people claimed to have never uttered a racial epithet (and were quite boisterous about it). “Really?” I wondered. If it’s true, you are one cool, strong and fortunate human being … and you probably didn’t grow up in Canarsie (although there probably are many Canarsians, black and white, who never did utter racial and/or gay epithets).

So, I wish I could’ve told those linebackers BACK THEN how wrong those gay comments/jokes” were … and I can only HOPE/PRAY that none of them were gay. They were all good kids trying their best to blend into the macho world of football, but it was (and has always been) the macho mindset of the game that is flawed—unfortunately, sometimes to the lowest possible denominator.

The best coach ever (any sport), Vince Lombardi, was way ahead of his time not only on the field, but in the locker room as well. “Lombardi's unprejudiced attitude was not confined to his players' race or ethnicity. Lombardi was aware of tight end Jerry Smith's homosexuality, and upon arriving in Washington, told Smith in confidence that it would never be an issue as long as he was coaching the Redskins. Smith flourished, becoming an integral part of Lombardi's offense, and was voted a First Team All-Pro for the first time in his career, which was also Lombardi's only season as Redskin head coach. Lombardi invited other gay players to training camp, and Lombardi would privately hope they would prove they could earn a spot on the team.”


And, yes, that should apply to all religions everywhere all the time.

So, here’s to Michael Sam. I intend to buy his jersey as soon as he’s drafted (and I expect him to be drafted). Even if it’s the dreaded New England Cheatriots, I’ll buy and wear his jersey. This kid deserves all the support in the world … and I know I owe him and everyone like him for my own past indiscretions.


Let it be …