Bay Area Reporter
Copyright © 2006 Bay Area Reporter, a division of Benro Enterprises, Inc.

Jock Talk:
Anatomy of empowerment

This week is one like no other high school basketball coach Anthony Nicodemo has ever known, full of suspense, exhilaration, nervousness, and empowerment. A week of embracing the unknown and shedding the shadows of the past. But throughout this brief period of uncertainty, there is one thing he knows for sure: he'll never have another Pride weekend quite like this one.

On Monday, June 24, Nicodemo, a coach at Saunders High School, a public secondary school in Yonkers, New York, met with a room full of his basketball players and some of their parents before a summer practice. He talked about the importance of honesty, a theme he has touched upon in his motivational talks countless times. And then he talked with them about something he had never told them before.

"We talk to the kids about how you have to be totally honest," Nicodemo told the Bay Area Reporter. "I told them, 'Well, I haven't been completely honest with you. I've been living a little bit of a lie. I'm gay.'"

Now, some of us have known or suspected our sexuality all of our lives; some, like me, don't clue in until a later age. Nicodemo, 35, would be in the latter group, not acknowledging to himself he was gay until about 10 years ago.

"I don't know if there's a point where I can pinpoint when I knew I was gay," he told me. "I definitely think the curiosity was there earlier. I was dating women almost to trick myself; I might have been trying to con myself. But definitely in college I finally started not to be in denial anymore."

Over the next few years, he started telling one or two family members at a time. He had a relationship for a while – "That process certainly helped me mature," he recalled – and discovered the existence of other gays in sports through Internet outlets such as Nicodemo, who is also director of the Westchester County Basketball Coaches Association and owns Westchester Elite Basketball, blogged anonymously about "Coaching From the Closet" for a period, and used secret email accounts to correspond with other sports people about his concerns, never revealing his true identity but always inching closer and closer.

Finally, late last year, he joined the confidential Equality Coaching Alliance online network and, in that safe space, for the first time used his true name and started talking with colleagues about their experiences coming out.

"It was a great resource," he said.

When NBA player Jason Collins came out this year, Nicodemo talked with his players about it. "That definitely opened up the conversation a bit," he said.

And then, he attended the Nike LGBT Sports Summit in Oregon June 14-15 and for the first time saw rooms full of sports allies and LGBT coaches and athletes.

"It was the first time for my being around people like you – people with successful lives and they're respected," he told me. "I looked around at this group of people and saw that everyone was happy. At the end of the day, it was better to put it out there and not have to answer rumors for 10 more years. I was intrigued and motivated to think maybe I could make a difference."

His Twitter account gave the first outward signs of his move toward coming out: not flat-out declarations initially, but little by little dropping bits and pieces of info for those really curious able to check out and come to their own conclusions if so inclined.

On June 12 he tweeted, "Heading out to the Nike #betrue summit in Portland. Should be a great experience for the next few days. Wheels up!" Two days later he wrote about being at the summit and talking with Athlete Ally about promoting awareness and change. The final day he posted a picture of Collins at the summit and wrote about the empowerment of the discussion to make scholastic programs more inclusive.

Then, back home in Yonkers, he started laying the groundwork, meeting first with his school principals and a friend from a local television station.

"It started with those three guys," he told me. "So far every single reaction has been good." One school administrator told him, "If anyone can handle this, breaking the stereotype, it would be you."

"I'm not 6 foot 1 with a six-pack," Nicodemo said.

He followed up by meeting with some of his former players, one of whom has two siblings on his current team.

"He told me, 'We have your back. You're part of my family,'" Nicodemo said. "I felt better. It's nice to have told 15 people – 10 more than I told in 35 years. I don't care what most people think; what I care about is what people close to me think. But I was absolutely exhausted last night; I don't want to keep having that conversation for 35 more years."

I introduced Nicodemo to fellow summit attendee Robert McGarry, director of education at the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network. They spoke the night before Nicodemo's team meeting to help him prepare for the questions that would follow. 

"Since its founding, Changing the Game – the GLSEN Sports Project – has told stories of 'game changers,' people who take action to make K-12 sports and physical education safe and respectful for LGBT students," McGarry said. "Coach Nicodemo is one of those people. His decision to share his story and live, teach, coach, and lead as his true self is certain to have a very positive impact on so many and help us move the conversation about LGBT equality in sports into the K-12 arena. He is truly one of our all-stars."

Nicodemo said he was optimistic but nervous going into the Monday meeting.

And then ...

"It blows my mind," he said after the meeting. "Way better than I thought. The kids were unbelievable. Right away one of the kids stepped up and said, 'He's never made us feel uncomfortable. He's like our father. He's like our brother.' I'm surprised. I'm humbled by my kids."

Within hours after practice he and the kids were doing what kids and coaches do these days. They were tweeting support to each other.

"2day I experienced the most satisfying moment of my basketball career," Nicodemo wrote. "So proud to be the coach at Saunders and love my team unconditionally."

"Saunders just became a stronger team love my team," one player wrote back. "Saunders Basketball isnt a team," wrote another. "Its a family. Playing basketball here is a honor and i wouldnt trade it for the world."

"They see this team being brought together," the coach told me after his meeting. "I don't think this acceptance would have been there five years ago. I really believe every situation is different. I think everyone [thinking about coming out] has to judge it on their own situation. I know I don't think this acceptance would have been there five years ago. There are still going to be bumps in the road. But if they feel they have this kind of support, then go out there. The fear is of the unknown."

Nicodemo's fears are reduced and now he knows that this Pride weekend will truly be his, a weekend like no other before it.

Come to think of it, neither will mine.

Welcome to the team, Anthony.