By Aaron Hicklin
Jared Max in the ESPN studio. Photo: Jeff Skopin/ESPNNEWYORK.com
For as long as he can remember, Max has always known he wanted to be a sports reporter. As a kid, he would play football alone in his backyard, announcing all the plays to an imaginary audience. In high school, he recorded 60-second score reports on his answering machine, handing out business cards to his fellow classmates that read: “The only answering machine that gives you the latest sports news and reviews.” He was 15 at the time. “Every morning I’d go running out in my underwear, grab USA Today, read the sports, and then make my message,” he says. It turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy when a real sports phone line caught wind of his enterprise and hired him.
Although he recalls a crush in second grade -- “There was this kid who had moved from Texas, and I remember thinking he was cute” -- Max’s sexual awakening was gradual. He remembers being struck by a poster that his sixth grade teacher had hung in the classroom -- “a photograph of oranges on top of each other, with one apple in the mix” -- but it was some years before he began to understand why it resonated.
At Hofstra University on Long Island, where he majored in interdisciplinary studies, Max continued to date women even as his attraction to men grew increasingly urgent.
He also formed one of the most significant friendships of his life with historian and writer Douglas Brinkley, whose novel approach to American history was to load his students on to what he called the Majic Bus and drive them across America for six weeks. Along the way, they made house calls on Arthur Miller, Dylan, and William S. Burroughs, among others. They also got a gay history lesson in the Castro, though Max says he was too closeted to appreciate it. He preferred chatting with Hunter S. Thompson about the NFL players’ strike of 1982.
“A lot of young people don’t know what they want to do, and what I most admired about Jared is that he knew he wanted to be a New York sportscaster -- that was his dream,” says Brinkley, who was among the first to receive a call from Max the day he came out on air. “I just said I was so proud of him for doing it,” recalls Brinkley. “There’s a world of prejudice out there, and that Jared found the courage to come out in such a public fashion was heroic.”
Brinkley’s reaction was gratifying, but then so was the reaction of almost everybody that day. One exception was his father. Although his parents divorced when he was six, Max remained close to both of them. After coming out to his mother at 24, he’d left it to her to tell his father, but the subject remained off-limits in their conversations. Max noted, with growing resentment, how his father would ask his brother about his relationships without expressing any interest in his own. He felt they were drifting apart, a perception exacerbated by the outpouring of goodwill from family, friends, and strangers. “There was so much acceptance within my family, but my dad seemed to me to be the only one who wasn’t joining in the party, and it hurt. I wanted him to be part of it.”
A few days after coming out, Max sent his father an angry email reciting all the hurt he felt. Although he cringes at the things he wrote, the two had a teary reconciliation a few days later -- “It might have been the only time I’ve cried with him” -- and they now talk regularly. “I
remember getting off the phone and feeling there was a world of potential,” says Max. “Ten years ago, if he’d heard someone make an antigay remark, I think he would have kept quiet -- today, I think he’d go to war for me.”
Max hopes his profile at ESPN will have a similar effect in the world of sports journalism. It can be pretty lonely being the only out gay man at a station that Max describes as “a fraternity house of jocks wearing suits,” but his stance may prove to be a harbinger of change.
Justin Craig, program director at ESPN New York 98.7 FM, who recently hired another gay host for the station, described Max’s ratings as unprecedented. “We haven’t had an overall number 1 in men 25 to 54 segment in the history of this radio station,” he said, adding that the figures reflect Max’s growing comfort as a host.
For A.J. Daulerio, editor of Gawker, and formerly of sports site Deadspin, Max’s ratings success reflects something more fundamental -- a growing consensus that there’s no place for homophobia in sports. “The issue has advanced enough that the homophobes come off as losers now,” he says. “I don’t know that anyone actually considers it a taboo any more, but it’s still covered in the media like this hush-hush thing. The whole issue itself has to be pushed forward in a more advanced way.”
On a Friday night, Max invites me to see Loudon Wainwright III play at Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan. The musician drags his entire extended family to perform on stage with him, one at a time. Each performs a duet on one of Wainwright’s songs and then a solo of his or her own material. Max is in his element. It’s a long show, and as it progresses, the songs build into a litany of old family feuds and wounds, regrets, and disappointments.
Late in the concert, Wainwright pulls out a passage written by his own father -- a columnist for Life magazine who died in 1988 -- about his fraught relationship with his father. It’s a lovely piece of writing that achieves the enviable skill of speaking privately to everyone in the audience. Afterward, Wainwright invites his son, Rufus, to the stage and the two perform a poignant duet of “Poses.” When they hug at the end, you sense the distance these two fractious men have traveled to reconcile themselves to each other.
As the audience applauds, Max leans over to whisper in my ear. “That’s what I was talking about,” he says. “Five or six years ago, you wouldn’t have seen that.”