Jared Max told his cat before he told anyone else.
"Things might be a little different when I get back," he told the cat as he left his house for the ESPN Radio studios. Might, he emphasized, because hours later, as he read over the air the previous night's scores and an ad for a Toyota dealership in Brooklyn, he still wasn't sure.
"I didn't decide that I was going to do it until 30 seconds before i was going to do it," says Max. "I had other material I could have finished my show with, but I just said "Go."
When he was done, he was still Jared Max, 1050 ESPN morning sports guy, and he was still gay. But now his listeners, his employers, and his colleagues knew it, and the semi-secret life he's lived for nearly two decades was a matter of public record. He couldn't be happier.
"Life is really good right now," he laughs, a little dumbfounded. "I don't have to hide any more."
While he had to pull the trigger once and for all on a rainy Thursday morning, it was far from a spur-of-the-moment decision. The metaphor he keeps returning to? A snowball. One that started rolling when he was 21 years old and first came out to his mother, and gradually some friends and co-workers. One that grew as he found himself not fully comfortable either in New York's gay bar scene or talking sports every day on the radio. ("I didn't want to get too famous, because if I got big, it would be too much. Guys [from the bars] would be able to identify me.")
It bothered him when he'd have to discuss anything on-air related to homosexuality. When Mike Piazza called a press conference to insist that he was straight — younger readers, this is a thing that actually happened — Max "played Switzerland, never taking a side, even though that's totally the opposite of what I would normally do." That was a low point.
"People are saying [coming out now] was 'courageous' or 'brave,' says Max. "The courage and bravery came long before that, by just living and trying to be true to myself for years. When I was transitioning into this other life, I held on for dear life to my soul to who I am, to avoid becoming someone I didn't know. Sometimes, that happened."
But he wasn't ready to end it until the snowball picked up Charles Barkley. When Barkley said that he's played with gay teammates, that every team has gay players, and that no one cares as long as you're good at your job, that got to Max.
"If that last week didn't happen," he muses, "with Rick Welts and Will Sheridan and even a gay bowler coming out, I don't do this. And Barkley's comments were the tipping point. You start realizing, I get one life. Thirty-seven years old. What the hell am I doing sitting around and not being myself? I don't think I could live with myself if I shied away from this, a true challenge but one that had to be taken."
How'd he do? He's still not sure. His announcement is still a blur to him, and he only listened back to it for the first time today. He was impressed with the tone of his voice, the "strength" and "masculinity." "I'm a man's man, he says. "No pun intended."
The feedback was instant, and overwhelmingly positive, save some Daily News commenters. He's received hundreds of phone calls and emails from strangers, but also from industry colleagues and even a long-lost high school friend. He's writing back to every single one, on the chance that he can inspire someone else just as Charles Barkley inspired him. The well-wishers are happy for him, but more importantly, they're impressed.
"As a gay guy, getting told by a bunch of straight guys, 'That's a set of balls you got,' that's special."
Max sees the mood changing, even in just the past few weeks, and he wants to be a part of it. Homophobia is the new racism, something to be ushered out in time. "Saying the N-word used to be acceptable for some people, and now it makes you a bad guy, as it should. When Kobe Bryant says 'faggot' or a hockey agent attacks Sean Avery, I was amazed to see that they were the bad guys in the media. People are getting it right like they never have before."
So now Max doesn't have to hide, although he hopes not to become "the gay sports radio guy." He's here to talk sports, and give the news, because that's his job and that's what people want. He knows it'll be impossible to keep his sexuality from informing his opinions, especially as he covers the growing number of sports figures revealing their own secret lives. But he thinks the world is finally ready.
"It's f'ing great," Max says. "My god, if I could have even a small role in adding to that snowball ..."