Photography by David Yellen
Jared Max has a metaphor for what happened to him on May 19, 2011. "There's a moment when the chicken is about to hatch from the shell," he says. "You don't know exactly when it will happen, but you know that it's coming." When Max left his suburban New Jersey home at 2 a.m. for his regular radio gig at New York's ESPN 1050, he wasn't sure he was going to break out of his shell -- he knew only that he might. As he was leaving, he glanced down at his cats, Chocolate Mush and Skutchie Mama. "Guys, things might be a little different when I come home today," he said. And then he got into his 2004 Volkswagen Passat and drove to work, as he did every weekday.
It was 5:50 a.m., shortly before the end of his morning show, when Max, then 37, cracked his shell wide open. "For the last 16 years, I've been living a free life among my close friends and family, and I've hidden behind what is a gargantuan-sized secret here in the sports world," he said. "I am gay."
Max delivered his confessional in the classic radio-jock style his audience was used to -- all declarative sentences and emphatic pauses. He dismissed innuendo about gays in the locker room ("ridiculous"), requested that his colleagues stop asking if he was married or had a girlfriend, and quoted Shakespeare: "To thine own self be true."
A few hours later, Max was back home, breaking the news to Mush and Skutchie.
One year on, Max still jumps into his Passat at 2 a.m. every day to drive to the ESPN studio in the city. Far from alienating his audience, Max's act of courage seems to have cemented his position. In the first quarter of this year, his show ranked first in New York among men ages 25 to 54 in his time slot.
He remembers wrapping up his on-air soliloquy last year, thinking, Holy shit, this is easy, realizing "that all the fears I'd built up were useless." Supportive emails and texts were flooding in before he'd even wrapped, but the memory that stands out is the way his board operator sauntered in and said, "Hey, my old man called, he said congratulations." For Max, that was everything. "I got the impression that his dad was old-school, so it really meant a lot to hear that," he says.
It is a rainy morning in mid-May. Max is heading home after his morning shift and cursing the drivers blocking the way into the Lincoln Tunnel. He is wearing a gray sweatshirt and jeans. A colleague at his station told me that Max was a good source for style tips, but Max says it's not true. "I dress like a straight guy who doesn't quite know how to dress, like he's just putting clothes on to keep himself warm," he says. Pushed to think of any gay stereotypes that apply to him, he says, "Jeez, I'm into arts a little bit, and I think I have a bit of a flair for interior design."
As a kid, his mom used to tell him that he had the sensitivity of a woman. "I had no problem with that. I watch The Young and the Restless, and I'll cry. I've been watching it for 20 years."
For a long time, Max says he felt as awkward in gay bars as he did in straight ones. "When I would walk out of bars, I would say to myself, 'Jared, you don't fit in anywhere.' I felt strongly discriminated against because I was more interested in sports and I don't talk like this" -- he raises his voice a few octaves -- " 'Oh my gawd.' " He knows it's unfair to make generalizations, but hell, gay men often generalize about him. "Do you know how much it pisses me off when gay guys say, 'You're so butch'? Fuck you! I am who I am. I wouldn't say, 'You're such a fucking Mary,' you know?' "
It's a touchy subject for Max, who once went by the AOL screen name Dichotomy for good reason. "I didn't realize I could be Jared, who is into sports, who is gay, who is into Rush," he says, referring to his favorite band. College, he recalls, was "two years of hellish depression, where the most pleasant thoughts of the day were what people were going to say about me at my funeral." He listened to a lot of Rush. "They had a song called 'Bravado,' " he recalls. "For me, that song was a secret weapon that kept me alive every day and said, 'Fuck you,' to the world." (These days, references to the Canadian rock band are a staple of his ESPN show).
A three-and-a-half-week relationship with another guy was transformative, but not in the way Max had hoped. "At the time, he said, 'Jared, I'm not about to deal with somebody else's identity crisis,' and my response was, 'You cold son of a bitch, what kind of friend are you?' "
The rejection had a profound effect on Max, who needed solace but had no idea how to find it. "That's a really scary place for a lot of kids who don't have anyone to turn to," he says. "The only person who knew they were gay is the person they were in a relationship with." So Max came out to his mother. "More than anything, what I needed was a hug and her just to say, 'It's OK,' and it wasn't there." He spent the night sleeping in the basement, feeling as alone as he could ever remember. The hug came the following day and has been there for him ever since.
Most of his family has moved to Florida, but Max still lives in New Jersey, a few miles from the town where he grew up. Pictures of his heroes, Bob Dylan and Rush's Geddy Lee, decorate what he calls his "sports study." There's a photo of Max with Andy Rooney, another of him with Robert Plant and Elvis Costello. He points to a painting called The Last Breakfast that shows a group of breakfast cereal mascots sitting around a long Last Supper-ish table. "Very few people can name them all," he says, then proceeds to do just that. "You've got Boo Berry, Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Cap'n Crunch, Tony the Tiger, Trix Rabbit, that's Cornelius from Corn Flakes, Coco Monkey for Cocoa Puffs, the Lucky Charms leprechaun..." The list goes on. "I don't want to offend anyone," says Max. "I'm Jewish, but I'm not really religious."
We walk into the dining room. "This is one room in the house that will remain more old-fashioned," he says. "I just recently painted this wall here -- the steakhouse feel is what I'm going for." He points to another wall. "This blue is New York Yankees blue. I have Minnesota Vikings purple, New York Yankees gray, New York Rangers red."
There is, apparently, a paint company dedicated to replicating the colors of sports teams. In another room, Max says, "This wall used to be both Ohio State yellow and Tulane green; I recently changed it to this periwinkle that I love." He has a theory that football games look better on TV if the color combinations of the team complement each other, and he blames the Minnesota Vikings' purple strip for turning him into a fan at the age of five. "That's probably a little gay, too," he chuckles.
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."