It is inevitable. It is coming. An active player in one of the major team sports is going to come out and be for gay people what Jackie Robinson was for African Americans.

As far as Will Sheridan is concerned, it's already happened.

"If my memory serves," Sheridan said Thursday night, "didn't Sheryl Swoopes come out while she was an active player? I don't think women's basketball gets nearly enough respect. That's a team sport."

Point to Sheridan. Swoopes did come out in 2005, and she endured a certain amount of backlash for it. She also said she was relieved and happy not to have to keep hiding who she really was.

But men's team sports may be the last stronghold of macho, intolerant attitudes. Ask Roger McDowell, the former Phillies reliever suspended from his job as Atlanta's pitching coach for making homophobic comments and gestures at fans in San Francisco. McDowell's knuckle-dragging attitude is hardly unique in pro sports.

It will take strength and courage to be the first active NFL, NBA, NHL, or major-league baseball star to come out.

People like Sheridan, who played on Villanova's basketball team from 2003 to 2007, are setting the stage. In a story for ESPN.com, former Daily News staffer Dana O'Neil revealed that Sheridan's teammates knew he was gay and that it was never a problem in the locker room. Sheridan, who lives in New York, where he's pursuing a career in music, also appeared on ESPN's Outside the Lines program to discuss his decision to come out.

It's a bold step to take. But in some ways, the real story is what follows the initial splash. Sheridan said he has gotten "99 percent positive" feedback and has heard from friends and family and strangers all week. His voice mailbox was too full to accept new messages Thursday.

"I didn't really do this for myself," Sheridan said. "I'm not getting anything out of it. I'm doing it for lots of other people. It has been almost therapeutic for other people - and for me, as well."

There will be those who cringe and ask why this even matters. But it does. While sports can provide cover for some of the worst, most regressive attitudes, it can also lead the way. To say this issue is irrelevant is to say it didn't really matter when Robinson broke the color barrier. It did. Seeing a black man excel on the baseball field and win the respect of white fans and players had a profound impact on the rest of society.

"There are definitely parallels with race," Sheridan said.

Thursday's Inquirer included a column by Daniel Rubin about a college freshman who was driven out of school by homophobic bullying. A Rutgers student killed himself last year after a roommate put an explicit video of him on the Internet. Let's not even start on the church that pickets military funerals with signs that say, "God Hates Fags."

What Sheridan has done is demonstrate not just that fans can root for gay players, they already have and do. Nothing has changed about Sheridan's years on very good Villanova teams. He's the same guy reporters went to for immediate analysis and insight after games.

The day after the ESPN story hit, Charles Barkley was quoted in the Washington Post:

"I'd rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can't play. Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone freaking idiot. . . . Every pro player in every sport had probably played with a gay person."

Those words ring especially true in a week that saw a Phoenix Suns executive, a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and a CNN anchor come out.

Barkley went on to debunk the idea that gay players stay closeted because their teammates couldn't handle it. He's probably right. The real issue is how fans would react, and how much pressure and bother that would cause the player.

"I think if a star player came out, it won't matter," Sheridan said. "As long as the player continues to be great."

It is ultimately a personal decision, but there are consequences. As long as this barrier remains, there is the tacit acceptance that being gay is something to hide. That fuels the rockheads who torment college freshmen or beat up someone for being different. And it prevents sports from leading the way for the rest of society the way Robinson did.

He didn't have the option to pretend he wasn't African American.

Sheridan didn't get to play in the NBA and make that decision. Instead, he's chasing a different dream. A rapper and producer, he has released an album, Ngoma, and plays regularly in New York. He will perform Friday night at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md. The video for his song "Welcome to the Jungle" has gotten more than 50,000 views on YouTube.

"I'm moving from a team sport to a more individual thing," Sheridan said. "It's about what I can do."

This week, just by being himself, he did more than he knows.

Contact Phil Sheridan
at 215-854-2864, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his past columns at go.philly.com/philsheridan