Here’s a story from Nancy Haggerty on how Section 1 and the schools plan to counter taunting this season against the Saunders basketball team in the wake of Anthony Nicodemo’s recent announcement that he is gay.
Nancy also has a column responding to the inevitable response from some members of the community who say they wouldn’t want their sons playing for Nicodemo.
Many of the words aren’t new to anybody, including those uttered from the almost-anything-goes bleachers and on the basketball court itself, where effective trash talk is sometimes as revered as a backward slam off an alley-oop pass.
But Saunders coach Anthony Nicodemo doesn’t expect his recent public announcement that he’s gay to place a bull’s-eye on either his back or the backs of his players.
He has told his kids, though, that gay slurs directed at the team are his battle alone.
“I have to trust my kids (not to retaliate). Everything that’s going on is trust,” said Nicodemo, 35.
If things get “that volatile — if it’s affecting my team and kids — I will address it with the administration or whomever is in charge,” he said.
Section 1 doesn’t anticipate problems. Section 1 director Jennifer Simmons said Saunders’ opponents won’t be advised about how to interact with Saunders players and its coach because sportsmanship rules already prohibit taunting. At some games, an announcement is read advocating good fan behavior.
Rival coaches also don’t appear particularly concerned.
Eastchester coach Fred DiCarlo said anything out of line that is said from the stands at his school would be handled by his athletic director or another administrator.
While he said he might “touch on the topic” with his team before any Eastchester-Saunders games, he said, “I wouldn’t expect anything from my players.”
“I talked to a couple of players already, and it’s no issue,” DiCarlo said. “We’re in 2013. There’s so much acceptance of everybody’s lifestyle. … I think a lot of people know gay people. Thirty or 40 years ago, it would be a different story.”
But not everyone’s so sure. As Yonkers resident Alan O’Brien pointed out, trash talk is part of basketball’s “culture.”
“In the arena, it’s almost like a gladiator mentality. They’ve got their game face on. I don’t think the motivation would be hate or anger,” said O’Brien, who was watching his son play baseball at Welty Park in Yonkers. “Short, fat, bald … they’d trash-talk Michael Jordan if he were out there coaching. There’s going to be words. People will use words they’re used to using on the court. They want to get an advantage. I’d like to hope it’s not coming from a negative perspective, just trying to win.”
Palisade Prep coach Sean Stahn, who is friends with Nicodemo, said he’d addressed the issue with returning players and might give his team “just a little reminder” before facing Saunders.
“They’re not professionals or college players, but there are expectations for our players,” Stahn said. “They are representing me, the school and principal.”
The wild card, he indicated, are the fans.
“Obviously, there are immature adults and kids out there. It’s an obvious issue. But I would hope most people would handle themselves in the proper way,” he said, explaining he believes schools should be aware of the situation but doesn’t believe extra precautions are necessary.
But two gay-rights advocates who know Nicodemo back a more proactive approach.
Aaron McQuade, head of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s sports program, said announcements should be made before games not only saying that no “derogatory” language will be permitted but spelling out that no language dealing with “race, religion, sexual identification, gender identification, politics and gender” will be tolerated.
“This sort of ties in with the conversation we’re having about bullying as a country,” McQuade said. “When does it stop being ‘kids being kids’ and start being damaging?”
“Taunting people as gay or lesbian is one of the historically allowable taunts in athletics. It’s only in the last couple of years that people have been called out on that,” added Helen Carroll, sports project director for the Center for Lesbian Rights.
Carroll said people should be tossed from gyms for “gay name-calling,” just as they’re tossed for using racial slurs.
She suggested athletic directors not focus on Nicodemo and his team but rather make clear at the beginning of the school year what words will not be tolerated in their gyms – among them “no LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) remarks.”
Carroll said the message should be, “We’re not standing for it. … We’re better than that.”
“All they’re saying is, ‘Welcome to the 2013-14 season,’ ” she said.
Twenty years ago, the announcement probably wouldn’t have happened.
Twenty years from now, maybe it won’t garner even a shrug.
But today, Saunders boys basketball coach Anthony Nicodemo’s revelation he’s gay has stirred debate.
Nicodemo heads charity tournaments, is director of the Lower Hudson Basketball Association and is a Section 1 Basketball Committee member.
Maybe because of that and/or because of societal changes and his timing — his announcement last month coming just before the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act — some people have said, “So what?”
“We don’t care. He gets us better as a team,” one Saunders player explained, declining to give his name.
But on a recent Sunday at Welty Park, near Saunders, one man, playing basketball with his family, didn’t try to hide his disgust.
“I wouldn’t like someone like that coaching my kids,” said Rob, a father of three boys, who declined to provide his last name.
Saying he didn’t want Nicodemo in “close contact” with his sons, Rob repeatedly alluded to gays being pedophiles.
“Unfortunately, homosexuality is a sin … I’ve still got my Christian values,” said Rob, who contended Nicodemo’s announcement amounted to a role model saying, “It’s OK to do those things.”
Rob’s brother, whose wife, ironically, was attending NYC’s Gay Pride Parade with a gay friend, seemed more accepting but, without children, declined comment.
Rob’s sons are Catholic school students, who’ll move to public for high school. Saunders had been a major consideration for his eldest, an eighth-grader.
“I don’t know if I’ll send my kid there (now),” he said.
Told about Rob a few days later, Nicodemo emphasized, “I’m not going to try to force my lifestyle on anyone else.”
He linked years of silence to a “fear of the unknown” and mentioned the support he’d received from school officials, his players, their parents, other coaches (including a couple from D-I colleges) and opposing players.
Nicodemo said his announcement — following NBA player Jason Collins’ revelation and his own return from Nike’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual Sports Summit — was designed to avoid “he is this” or “he is that” rumors.
“Everyone I’m involved with knows who I am now,” he said. “I’m not going to change. I’ll be there for the kids.”
Lisa Bekesy, whose son, Michael, played for Nicodemo before graduating two years ago, is a fan.
“My son had the best year at school that year. He didn’t want to graduate,” Bekesy said. “I was so glad (Nicodemo) was there that year. What a turnaround.”
Nicodemo’s team has supported him through social media postings. While grateful, Nicodemo isn’t surprised. The kids had earlier expressed acceptance of Collins.
Nicodemo’s support also comes from Yonkers residents who don’t know him.
“Being gay doesn’t make people pedophiles,” said Tara DeRubis, who was at the Welty playground with her 6-year-old twins and friend Michelle Williams and Williams’ 5-year-old son.
“I guess I’m befuddled because of the people it actually makes a difference to,” said Williams, who questioned whether the same concern is voiced about heterosexual coaches overseeing teams of the opposite sex.
Recent Saunders grad Chris Tran, 17, who was playing pick-up basketball, said, “I was happy for him that he revealed himself. I don’t think anyone wants to hold a secret.”
But many coaches do and for good reason.
Aaron McQuade, director of sports for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, knows of only a handful of openly gay coaches. But he believes Nicodemo’s announcement, if not triggering like announcements, will at least increase public acceptance.
“Every time someone like Anthony or Jason Collins or (soccer player) Robbie Rogers comes out, everybody’s definition has to change,” McQuade said, explaining gay isn’t “this weird, foreign thing anymore.”
Nicodemo noted Saunders Principal Steve Mazzola said, “I don’t see anyone better than this to dispel the stereotype.”
But, as the 5-4 Supreme Court DOMA split shows, sentiment regarding gay rights is divided.
Helen Carroll, a former D-I college basketball coach and AD, who’s sports director for the California-based Center for Lesbian Rights, said, “I help coaches every year who’ve been flat-out fired. Many states have absolutely no employment protections for LGBT.”
Carroll said one coach who’d won state championships was deemed a poor role model.
“Many people know they’ll be fired if they come out because they know who they work for,” Carroll said, explaining federal civil rights challenges can take years, so often aren’t pursued.
Carroll and McQuade suggested closeted coaches will monitor what happens to Nicodemo.
“It’s wonderful to have people like Anthony, who are willing to let people see his journey,” Carroll said.
That extends to players.
“What Anthony is doing makes athletics so much better, especially for the student-athletes who may be questioning. It will give them a hopefulness and enthusiasm for sports that they might not have been able to have,” Carroll said, calling Nicodemo a “positive role model for athletes of all orientations.”
That was clearly lost on Rob at the park.