Former NFL cornerback Wade Davis knows a lot about courage and a lot about power. Undrafted out of Weber State in 2000, Davis spent four years bouncing between the NFL and NFL Europe, winning a World Bowl championship in the process. His playing career ended in 2003 when he retired due to a leg injury, but in many ways, the now-37 year old’s life started there.
“I moved back to Colorado where my family lived,” Davis said. “I was working a crap job, and I wasn’t really out publicly yet. A friend of mine lived in New York City, and I had been there a few times—enough to know that I could be gay without worrying about people knowing who I was. So, I packed up all of my stuff and moved to New York City.”
Davis spent a year living off of his NFL earnings, and then the next few years floating from job to job, including being a physical trainer. He even spent some time working at an ad agency, doing what he describes as absolutely nothing. At one point, they actually brought him in and asked him point blank if he actually did anything for them, and he admitted he didn’t in a piece of reality that is startlingly like a piece of popular fiction. He was fired from the ad agency, but inexplicably given a severance package, in what he calls one of the more fortunate moments of his career.
It was then that Davis found his calling.
“I had been playing for the New York City Gay Flag Football League,” Davis said, “so I was starting to have a lot more gay relationships, gay friends and I had a boyfriend at the time, but I wasn’t really out to anyone outside of New York. A friend of mine says, ‘why don’t you go volunteer?’ So I ended up volunteering at a place called Hetrick-Martin Institute.”
The Hetrick-Martin Institute is an organization founded in 1979 that focuses on the specific plight and challenges of LGBT youth. They do this through initiatives like founding the Harvey Milk High School, which is a four-year, accredited high school open to all students—gay or straight—and focuses on providing a safe place for some of the cities most at-risk youth. They also provide training, hold events and otherwise generally support young people who may have lost their family, their homes or their self-worth based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
It was here that Davis not only found purpose, but a tremendous comparison to his own life.
“If these young people can live in their truth, why can’t I?”
Davis spoke with his close friend Cyd Zeigler of Outsports (also a founder of the aforementioned NYC Gay Flag Football League) and agreed to be out publicly under one condition: that Zeigler write the column not about a gay former football player, but about gay former football player who is doing very important work that more people should know about and support.
“It’s the first job since football that I wake up excited for work,” Davis said. “For these kids, the question isn’t whether they are shooting a basketball well, it’s whether they have a place to sleep tonight, whether they’ve eaten today. Sports is less significant than what I see these youth go through every day.”
Davis then joined President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign as a LGBT ambassador and had the chance to go to the White House to meet the president. The excitement in his voice was palpable as he described the chance to meet President Obama, but he also noted the visit coincided with the first-ever meeting of the “LGBT Support Coalition,” which was a collection of groups getting together to do exactly what Davis was hoping to accomplish for the rest of his life.
It was at the second meeting of the coalition when he met Patrick Burke.
These days, Burke is the Director of Player Safety for the National Hockey League, and has spent a life around the game of hockey as a scout and even spent a year with the New England Patriots as a legal intern. He has also been a tireless advocate for LGBT rights, was starting an organization called You Can Play, and wanted Davis to run it.
Davis almost immediately said no, but Burke eventually convinced him as he laid out his plans for You Can Play.
It’s been a perfect match.
You Can Play exists, in part, because Patrick’s brother Brendan—an out NHL player that died in a 2010 car crash—made it clear what life was like as a gay athlete and how important it is to have advocates in the space. The organization wants to foster an atmosphere of inclusion, where someone’s sexual orientation never serves as a barrier from enjoying athletics.
You Can Play’s mission statement puts it this way:
“You Can Play works to insure the safety and inclusion of all in sports—including LGBT athletes, coaches and fans.
You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success.
You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.”
A big part of Davis’ job is starting that conversation in locker rooms, and challenging what he calls “a lot of old tropes” about gay athletes.
“I know how to walk into their space, because it is their space,” Davis said about the locker room, “and have a conversation that is very serious but can still have some levity to it. There, I’m talking to athletes and not telling them how they need to think or how to feel, but to actually create a space to find some commonality and find some humanity in each other and almost watch them evolve before my eyes.”
In a way, Davis isn’t really asking athletes to do anything they might not otherwise do. These sorts of conversations are had—both privately and publicly—about all sorts of topics by athletes all over the sports world. In today’s culture—with Facebook, Twitter and more social media avenues such a central focus of today’s youth—athletes talk about all sorts of topics.
Or, as Davis said,”The 2015 athlete needs to have an opinion.”
However, where Davis’ goal becomes unique is it’s not always easy to step forward on this particular topic, and certainly not publicly. There’s a stigma and a reluctance that doesn’t often relate to many other issues. When specifically asked by the media, almost every athlete will say they would be “fine” with a gay teammate, but very few are willing to let that be known at times they’re not asked.
“There’s a lot of athletes who want to be allies,” Davis said. “but they also don’t have the cultural competency to have these larger conversations. Part of our work is to give athletes the language to talk about these things. We’re not in it to give this idea that athletes are inherently homophobic. Most athletes are more accepting than people give them credit for. As an athlete, you always live with people from different backgrounds. They make it work, because they have one large goal, which is winning.”
Davis easily points to the NFL’s first out gay athlete, current Canadian Football League defensive end Michael Sam, as proof the barriers aren’t as big as some might think.
“When you look at Michael Sam’s story, it debunks a lot of interesting myths—that black people are more homophobic, that athletes are more homophobic or that certain parts of the country are more homophobic—Sam went to a predominately black football team with all guys that are athletes and in the Bible Belt of America. When Westboro Baptist Church came to picket Michael Sam, the school creates a visible human barrier around him. When he came out to his teammates, none of his teammates had a problem with it.”
A win for Davis isn’t in winning arguments, telling people how they’re supposed to talk or in back-and forth debates with opponents to LGBT equality. It’s in showing that a few “knuckleheads” as Davis calls them don’t represent entire NFL locker rooms and any time an athlete finds the tools to be a vocal ally to his cause.
“It’s never my job to walk out of a room feeling like I’m right,” Davis said. “But when I walk out of the room, I want them to be thinking about it a little differently. That’s a win for me.”
How does he do that?
“Make yourself uncomfortable. As an athlete, your coaches put you in spaces to be uncomfortable, because it forces to you grow. It forces you to evolve, and you get better. The same thing has to happen with this issue as well. This term ally: We’ve emptied it of its true meaning. An ally is not a noun, it’s a verb. You can’t just waive your hand and say, ‘I’m an ally,’ and when someone makes a homophobic comment, say ‘it’s not about me.’ There is a lot of tension there, and athletes need to know about the tension that is going to come if they become vocal allies.”
“If you step out as a vocal advocate of LGBT rights and someone says, ‘You must be a faggot too!’ How are you going to respond to that? Are you going to run and say, ‘Oh, I’m not gay!’ Or, do you need to preface every statement with ‘as a heterosexual man…?” Or, are you the type of athlete who will say, “…and why would it matter if I am?”
About those “knuckleheads…”
Again, Davis isn’t trying to win debates or brow-beat anyone into acceptance. Often, he says he can accomplish the most simple by encouraging the most virulent opponents to keep talking, saying that many times they can talk themselves into what he calls a “very interesting circle,” based on actually articulating their opinions openly for once and getting non-verbal feedback from Davis and the teammates in the room.
Of course, football is deeply rooted in traditionally Christian areas of the country, with many players coming from southern states, the “Bible Belt” and other areas of the country with a history of both religious and conservative values.
“You cannot get into a theological battle in the locker room with a player. Can’t do it. What you can do is talk about love. You can talk about respect, because that’s something everyone understands. Whether you disagree or agree with having an LGBT teammate, can you treat that LGBT teammate with love? I just ask, ‘Can you do that?’ A lot of times, the player will respond, ‘Yes, I can do that, but…’ and I’ll stop him right there: ‘No no no, I don’t need your but, I just need you to agree to do that.”
That’s what so much of this is about, right?
I often bristle at the idea that men like Davis are forcing their ideas or a certain lifestyle upon others. As a religious man myself—in fact, not only born and raised Christian, but having attended Christian schools my entire life and with a college degree aimed at one day becoming a pastor–I have my own beliefs and opinions on a wide range of topics as they apply to my faith, morality and every day life.
But none of this is about changing anyone’s thoughts, opinions, faith or beliefs, it’s simply asking people if they can exist side-by-side with some measure of respect with people they may not agree with. It’s the ability to say: I may not agree with you on every single point of our lives, but I can still find value in you as a human being.
That sort of thing happens every day with people who may violently disagree on matters of faith, politics, culture or plenty of other things. It happens among Christians of varying denominations as well as between Christians and those of every other religion under the sun. It happens between Democrats and Republicans, Black and White, Rich and Poor and yes, even Gay and Straight.
It starts with breaking down the artificial barriers we put up in our own minds that define people only by what we disagree with. We—note: all of us, every single one—generalize and stereotype based on what we’ve been taught to think and believe about others, and if we choose never to step outside of that self-induced bubble, we see people not as people, but only as the categories we’ve put them in.
“When there’s a certain level of commonality,” Davis said, “our preconceived notions go away.”
Again, it’s not about changing minds as much as it is about opening those minds to the worth of people who may not share every single core value with one another.
Davis also calls the media a big hurdle to his cause (ouch, yo), saying athletes who may be out to their teammates and even finding plenty of acceptance worry about their team being put under a microscope by coming out publicly. Of course, there will be those guys or girls in every locker room who aren’t entirely comfortable sharing a locker room and showers with a person attracted to the same sex, and the media will dig until they find them.
There’s also a reluctance to be seen as a “gay athlete” rather than simply an athlete—Davis points to Sam again for this point—noting professional athletes have worked their whole life to get to a certain level and don’t want that cast aside simply because of their sexual orientation once the fact that they are gay becomes the most important thing about them.
“It’s unfortunate,” Davis said, “that we’re in a space now where if an athlete came out tomorrow, he’d no longer be an ‘NBA athlete’ or an ‘NFL athlete’ but just a gay athlete. When you’ve worked so long to be an athlete and that’s being taken away from you, that’s scary as hell.”
“I actually appreciate when a guy gets angry at me about this issue, because then I have other people coming up to me and I know they’ll continue this conversation. When I leave, I have to hope the discussion keeps happening.”
Overall, Davis says the NFL has been supportive of his cause, and even notes Roger Goodell told him to ask for anything he needed, because Goodell wanted any gay player to feel safe in any locker room. Yet, teams are autonomous creatures, and Davis still hasn’t talked to every team. He hopes to hit all 32 teams soon, but knows teams also want to educate players about a number of topics—domestic violence and financial responsibility—that Davis himself says are just as important as his message.
Still, Davis is right when he calls the NFL the “keeper of masculinity” in our country, and he’s even more correct when he says the NFL is in a particularly notable perch when it comes to changing some of the stereotypes about gay athletes. In a league that is full of actual, factual gay athletes not named Michael Sam, the NFL is not far off from needing to face this topic in a much more meaningful and public way.
Davis just wants to keep the conversation going so they are ready.