Be the change that you want to see in the world
-- Mohandas Gandhi
With all due respect to the good people who hand out the Emmys, the best show on television has nothing to do with horny housewives, castaways or Jersey. It's "The Wire" -- HBO's gritty depiction of Baltimore's war on drugs. It's dripping with so much political corruption and unsettling social commentary that it's hard to tell whether you're watching a TV show or the news.
Game Night: The Ravens hang out with the cast of "The Wire."
The series has been the darling of critics since it debuted four years ago. It has also become one of the most-watched programs among black athletes.
Carmelo Anthony loves the show.
As does Steve Francis.
Larry Hughes is also fan.
The Baltimore Ravens? Half the squad TiVo's it.
"The things in the show are some of the things I saw growing up in Detroit," says the Ravens' Derrick Mason. "Maybe not that drastic, but it's pretty real."
It should be. David Simon, the show's creator, was a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun. His writing partner, Edward Burns, taught social studies for seven years in the Baltimore school system after serving for 20 years as a city police detective. If those two can't get it right, no one can.
"A lot of black athletes like the show because it really tells it like it is," says Hughes, who grew up in St. Louis. "It goes beyond just who got shot, which makes it more interesting, because life in the 'hood is more complicated than that."
Which brings me to my point.
Omar -- the gun-slinging vigilante who, without question, is one of the most respected and loved characters on the show -- is gay. And I'm not talking the secretive and shady Haggard/Foley variety. I'm talking waking-up-buck-naked-with-his-buck-naked-Latino-boyfriend-on-the-other-side-of-the-bed gay. Everyone on the block knows. And so does the audience.
Can you think of another show or movie in which pro athletes openly root for the gay guy? I can't.
"The thing is that's such a small portion of who Omar is," Mason says. "He is respected because he is tough, he doesn't take any stuff from anybody and he doesn't apologize for anything that he does or who he is."
Hughes says he just "closes his eyes to that part."
"He's one of the best characters on the show," the Cavs guard says. "I think Omar is very believable. If you can have a businessman be on the down low, why can't you have a gangsta?"
"That's different," Mason says. "Because Omar does his thing but you don't have to be around him all of the time. In football, you spend so much time together and you're in the shower it's just different. I still think if an athlete comes out, he would be committing professional suicide."
But Mason's teammate, Bart Scott, has a different take.
"I don't care what he does in his personal life," the linebacker says. "All I care about is, 'Can he help me win football games? Can he help me win a Super Bowl?'"
Simon says people often ask him why he made Omar gay. He says the real question is, "Why did I make the other characters straight?"
"With each character on the show I tried to base it on one or two people who I actually knew of in Baltimore," he says. "Omar is no different.
"Look, the world is a complicated place. Nothing's black or white not even race."
Michael K. Williams, the actor who plays Omar, says he believes one of the reasons athletes are not put off by his character's sexual orientation is because of his overall strength.
"Brothers approach me all of the time thanking me for giving them a TV character they can identify with," he says. "They tell me how they are tired of sexuality being the only thing gay characters talk about on TV and how Omar is so much more than just a gay dude. He has a code that he lives by. He has the respect from other people in the 'hood because if you cross him up, he's going take his shotgun out and handle his business.
"But the big thing is Omar doesn't apologize for who or what he is. He lives his life without shame."
After talking to a number of athletes about "The Wire" and specifically Omar, I came away with the feeling that male athletes aren't opposed to gay teammates simply because they are gay. It's because they perceive them as being weak, and they may continue to believe that until a gay athlete finally comes out during his playing career.
I know that at the heart of it all, it's a fictional show. But the way I see it, if Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony can fight for a woman's right to vote in the 1800s; if Jackie Robinson can integrate baseball in 1947; if Rosa Parks can say "No" on that bus in 1955; if Don Haskins and the young men of Texas Western can ignore death threats to win a championship in 1966; if Hank Aaron could muscle the courage to break Babe Ruth's record in 1974, then what on Earth is stopping gay athletes from saying "Yes, I am" in 2006? How can they possibly believe their situation is any worse than those mentioned above? Yes, it's insightful to hear the story of a guy who comes out of the closet after he retires. But isn't it about time someone does it beforehand and be the change, as opposed to just hope for it? It won't be easy, but few things in life worth having are.
On the HBO Web page for "The Wire," there is a steady stream of blog posts about the show and its characters. One of the bloggers describes Omar as "that badass mother------ with the shotgun, smokin' on a Newport cigarette, and runnin' corner boys off like little bitches."
I believe what it doesn't say, says it all.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine and host of the ESPN360 talk show "Game Night." He is currently working on his first book. LZ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.