During his time as a defensive back for the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks, Wade Davis was a smart player who spent a lot of time studying and drawing up the defensive schemes he would need to get ahead. He developed friendships with teammates like Jevon Kearse, Samari Rolle and Eddie George, did his best to stay alive in the ruthlessly competitive nature of the NFL, and dealt with one difficult fact — he was a gay man in a profession where homosexuality was never discussed openly.
It took years after he left the NFL before he felt comfortable enough with himself to publicly admit that he was gay, but as Amy K. Nelson of SB Nation told me, that was a larger theme in Davis’ life through the last decade as he looked to find his place in the world.
“There was a lot that stood out from our conversation; one part that didn’t make the edit was his feelings about not only struggling with his identity as a gay man, and how difficult it was to hide it for so many years, but also his identity as a black man,” Nelson told me. “He would wear his clothes extra large, use patterns of speech that, to him, sounded like he spoke like many of his peers. He said he became the best actor in the world, because he had to for survival.
“He still struggles with identity, both as a black man and as a gay man. He’s still trying to figure this all out, but really, aren’t we all in some way? His work with the kids in New York City is truly honorable; 70 percent of them are homeless, couch surfers, and they’re teenagers. And now that he’s campaigning for Obama he’s hoping to help the movement. He’s a passionate, sweet person, but he’s also still an athlete; you can tell, he’s still very competitive.”
Before he started working for Obama, Davis found his “second dream” working for Hetrick-Martin Institute, described as a New York organization “which serves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning youth.” As he found his personal voice, Davis then looked to help others.
“It’s a one-stop shop for not only gay and lesbian youth, but also non-conforming youth, to find really great services and a sense of family, if they don’t have that,” he said. “I tell people often that I’m living my second dream, because I get to do a job every day that really changes lives.”
Davis knew about the need to find a sense of family, and the fear of losing it if you’re not like all the others — that happened to him as he worked his way through the NFL.
“You just want to be one of the guys, and you don’t want to lose that sense of family,” Davis told OutSports.com. “Your biggest fear is that you’ll lose that camaraderie and family. I think about how close I was with Jevon and Samari. It’s not like they’d like me less, it’s that they have to protect their own brand.”
Regarding his new work, “I started to realize there there’s an opportunity here for me to really make and affect change — not only within myself, but within the world,” Davis told Nelson.
At the NFL’s Rookie Premiere in May, several NFL veterans, former players, and first-year players said that they would have no trouble with an openly gay teammate, intimating at times that they knew of teammates who were fighting that fight. Kearse, Davis’ former teammate, once lived with an openly gay cousin, and had this to say about it.
“In the game of football, it’s like a war out there. Once you get out on the field, all that stuff is to the side. You’re on my side. I played in the NFL for 11 years, I’m sure there were at least one or two guys along the line that were gay.”
Whether Kearse knew about Davis or did not at the time, things seem to be better in perspective in the NFL, based on the responses of several rookies when asked that question.
“I never pay attention to it,” Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson said. “They do what they do. I don’t have a problem with them. As long as they’re playing good football and contributing to the team, I don’t have nothing to do with that. It is what it is. I don’t have any problem with any sexuality or whatever they’ve got going on.”
Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener agreed. “As long as they competed on the field and gave it their all in practice, that’s all I care about,” he said. “It’s not something that’s at the forefront of football. But especially at Stanford and in the Bay Area, it’s something you deal with on a regular basis, more so than anywhere else in the United States. So I’m very comfortable with it, whereas in other areas it might not be the norm.”
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III had a more personal experience, as he watched a high school teammate pull away from the game in fear of what might happen to him.
As Nelson told me, Wade wanted to make it very clear that the obvious locker-room fears are little more than trumped-up bullstuff, and Wade would be the first to say it.
“To me, in many ways the heart of the debate about whether there could ever be an openly gay player in the NFL [or any other major sport], is the locker room,” she said. “How if Wade had the chance, he’d tell other players that when he was in the locker room, the last thing he was thinking about was finding a partner, or being aroused. He viewed it as a room full of family members, and also as his workplace.
“I think if more active players heard that from former players, that would help ease a huge fear — not eradicate it, of course, but it would be progress. Wade admitted that it is one of the biggest roadblocks for players: The question if someone is gay whether that guy will be checking his teammates out and furthermore, putting them in an uncomfortable position.”
We’re closer than ever to the time when one player will make his homosexuality public while in the NFL, and when that happens, his teammates, coaches and the NFL itself will need to adopt, adapt and improve when it comes to the rights of that individual. That person won’t go through the violence and hate that Jackie Robinson once did — at least, we certainly hope not — but every barrier broken means we’re a step closer to the promise of equality for all.