Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune. Click here for PDF version.
As an NFL cornerback, Wade Davis was signed by the Tennessee Titans, the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Redskins.
But this season, he will be rooting for a different team.
“I don’t generally root for teams because I just like players, but I may closetly become a Rams fan this season,” Davis said.
Maybe it’s because he played for Rams coaches Jeff Fisher, Gregg Williams and Chuck Cecil in Tennessee. Perhaps it’s because a teammate of Davis’ from Weber State, John Fassel, is the special teams coordinator in St. Louis.
Or, it could be because he is no stranger to doing anything “closetly.” Davis spent years fighting for NFL roster spots and playing in NFL Europe as a gay man in hiding.
Now open about his sexuality, Davis, the executive director of theYou Can Play project, is the man smoothing the transition for Michael Sam, an openly gay draft pick of the St. Louis Rams.
Wade Davis is on a field. It’s a 30-by-70-yard enclosure in his backyard. It’s the neighborhood hangout for playing ball, and the kids meet there to play for hours on end. Their game of choice? Smear the Queer.
Davis falls in love with football, but at the same time he is developing a negative view toward homosexuality. He thinks homosexuality is synonymous with pedophilia. In his small rural corner of Shreveport, La. — there’s the church and there’s the school and that’s about it — he hears a lesbian woman described as a “bulldagger.” He doesn’t know what it means, but he knows lesbian women act like men and gay men are weak.
DAVIS SPENT LAST week at the NFL’s rookie symposium in Aurora, Ohio. On Monday, he presented to about 20 ex-players who are a part of the NFL’s Training the Trainers program. He talked to the players, who will meet and advise current players, about how to discuss homosexuality in front of a locker room, something Davis has first-hand experience with.
He spoke with the Rams before the rookies arrived to answer questions about one St. Louis newcomer in particular.
“The first question that was asked was ‘Hey, how do we make sure that Mike (Sam) knows that we’re OK with this and we’re not worried about feeling comfortable around him?’” Davis said.
He wants to give players a chance to talk about sexuality without worrying about saying something wrong.
“People walk around on eggshells about this issue,” said Cyd Zeigler, founder of LGBT media website Outsports. “They’ve seen other NFL players be torn apart by it in the media, and they’re just afraid of doing the wrong thing.”
Davis also met with the Rams front office, which asked more about his upbringing and his experience in the NFL.
He has met with three other teams so far. Though he can’t say which, Outsports reported he met with the Vikings. Zeigler said the other teams need to talk with Davis, because they don’t have an openly gay teammate like Sam to give them firsthand experience.
Davis also met with NFL owners in March. Zeigler said the first person to express interest after Davis’ presentation was Jeff Fisher, who told Zeigler he was planning to have Davis speak to the Rams.
“When they drafted him, it was not a big surprise,” Zeigler said.
Davis said he checks in with both Fisher and Sam every two to three weeks. He wants to offer his support without becoming an annoyance.
Davis works with the NFL through You Can Play, which combats homophobia in sports. The NFL was the first league to sign onto You Can Play’s High Five Initiative, giving players a chance to work with LGBT youth.
The NFL also launched its own Respect at Work initiative to offer education on diversity, including sexual orientation, as well as domestic violence, alcohol and finances.
“The NFL is taking a really serious look at locker-room culture,” Davis said.
Wade Davis is on a screen. He and Redskins teammate Champ Bailey are watching tape. Bailey is discussing the idea of minimizing wasted motion while backpedaling. Davis isn’t listening.
He’s too busy worrying he looks gay on tape. He wastes plenty of motion making sure his running motion doesn’t betray his sexuality to his teammates and coaches. He heeds players’ warnings about spending time with a bisexual teammate. He blows thousands of dollars at straight strip clubs. He has to look straight if he wants make the team.
THE NFL HAS changed since Davis last played. Society’s stance toward homosexuality has shifted noticeably, and it’s not uncommon for players and coaches to have family members or friends who are gay.
Though Davis said there were some front-office members who weren’t entirely comfortable with discussing homosexuality, there were a handful of them who spent the next two days asking him questions they hadn’t had been able to ask before.
“A lot of them were actually saying, ‘Hey, let’s not forget that we are human beings and that there are people in our families who are gay and lesbian and we love and embrace them,’” Davis said.
As for the players, Davis is staunchly against the stereotype of the homophobic jock. Teams regularly consist of players from different races, classes and religions, so there is no reason for sexuality to be any different, Davis said.
“Because they’re athletes and they spend such massive amounts of intense, intimate time together, they work through any period of uncomfortableness with their teammates very, very quickly, which is very different from people on a normal job,” he said.
Further, Davis said players can play their best if they’re not worrying about hiding their sexuality, something that should be appealing when your value is measured in wins and losses. Davis himself never made a regular-season roster, in part because of injury problems but also because he said he could not dedicate his full focus to playing football.
The Rams, in particular, should be a good spot for the first openly gay NFL player, Davis said, in part because of the man in charge.
“(Davis) raves about coach Fisher on a daily basis,” said Patrick Burke, co-founder of You Can Play. “I’m getting a little sick of hearing about how amazing coach Fisher is. But he loves Jeff Fisher and thinks that the culture he’s building there in St. Louis goes beyond just the LGBT stuff. It’s about building a team that cares for each other and works hard to win together.
“The biggest thing is that in the NFL, the coach sets the tone, and if your coach tells you, ‘Hey, you’re all going to adjust,’ honestly I don’t care if the other 54 players on the roster are a little bit homophobic at the start, because Jeff Fisher’s going to whip them into shape.”
Wade Davis is on a street. He is talking with a teammate of his on his National Gay Flag Football team, to which he was initially recruited by Zeigler. The teammate is telling Davis the other players view him as a role model. “Man, you’re stupid,” Davis says.
But the teammate insists. The fact an ex-NFL player would play in this league and educate teammates really makes a difference, and Davis should try to help out on a larger scale. Davis finds the Hetrick-Martin Institute on the Internet. He walks in to volunteer at the organization. He walks out with a job offer.
THERE ARE FEW people who can offer the kind of perspective that Davis can: ex-NFL player and openly gay.
Burke, who is straight, decided Davis should become the face of You Can Play because of his experience and expertise, which Burke “could never match in a million years.”
“I can never tell people what it’s like to be gay,” Burke said. “To me, it’s like being a man and calling yourself an expert on pregnancy. No matter what you do, no matter how many textbooks you’ve read, no matter how many women have told you what it’s like to have a baby, you don’t know what it’s like, and you don’t know what’s best for everyone in that situation.”
As if the rare cross-section of NFL and LGBT weren’t enough to qualify Davis for the job, his personality is just as crucial.
“People love Wade,” Burke said. “It’s almost scary how amazing of a job he does connecting with people on a daily basis. You can put him in a room with 85 NFL players during training camp, and they walk away connecting to him. And you can put him in a corporate board room with a whole bunch of old, rich guys, and they connect with him. And then you can send him to a high school campus and they connect with him. … I really think Wade’s the only person on the planet who has the ability, the experience and the personality to switch between all those types of groups and still be effective.”
Part of that comes from Davis’ experience of coming out to his mother. An only child, he is the mama’s boy of all mama’s boys. After a day playing football in the backyard, he would watch soap-opera recordings with his mother. That closeness was jeopardized when Davis told his mother he is gay.
She told him two things:
One: “That’s an abomination.”
“When you come out to your parents, oftentimes your parents experience a sort of death, for a lack of a better word,” Davis said. “And actually, it is a death. It is a death of a dream that your parents have for you. … People react to death in different ways. Some people cry. Some people scream. Some people shout. Some people are very quiet. My mother’s way to react to the death of her dream for her son was to react very negatively.”
Two: “You’re already black.”
“As a parent, you raise your kids for the world that you live in, not the world that they’re born to live in,” Davis said. “My mother had no imagination for the world as it is today, so she was trying to give me a specific skill set about how to navigate the world as a black man. And then when I told her I was gay, there is this part of her that goes, ‘I did not give him the skills to navigate this world as a gay black man. How is he going to survive?’”
For the next three to four years, Davis and his mother didn’t talk much. Davis gave her time to process. Now, they are close as ever. She calls him at least once a day.
“I never told my mother the way that she felt was wrong,” Davis said. “I really provided her with a lot of space to feel the way that she needed to feel around that. I kind of thought to myself that if it took me 20-plus years to start to love myself and feel comfortable being gay, I had to at least provide her with just as much space for her to be OK with her son being gay as well.”
Wade Davis is on a train. A transgender girl, early in her transition, is standing in the middle of the car and getting stares from other passengers. She is smiling. He starts to pity her.
He sees the same girl a month later. She is still smiling. Something clicks in Davis’ head. His pity does not do her any good. It is his responsibility to help her reach her potential. To do that, he has to view the world through her eyes.
DAVIS DIDN’T ALWAYS have the activism itch. Zeigler first met Davis in 2006 and said he did not see an underlying desire in Davis to give to the LGBT community. Davis’ work helping inner city LGBT youth in New York for the Hetrick-Martin Institute changed that.
“I don’t think you can work with kids who are marginally housed, who don’t get access to quality education, who live in abject poverty — I like to say who sit at the margins of the margins — but who still have a light in their eye, who still have a thirst to live and to be happy without it changing your life,” he said.
Davis worked as the assistant director of work readiness and academic enrichment at Hetrick-Martin for 2 1/2 years before he was hired by You Can Play in August 2013.
Davis’ experience working with LGBT youth has translated to his involvement with the High Five Initiative, and his experience with his mother has helped him create a nonjudgmental environment for NFL players to speak about LGBT topics.
NFL players are responding to the conversational freedom they get from Davis.
“He’s never been offended in his life,” Burke said of Davis. “If you’re sitting behind closed doors with Wade and you want to ask him a question about what it’s like to be gay in the NFL, you can ask him anything and he’ll give you an honest answer. NFL players have never had that option or that opportunity before, and now that they’re being presented with it by Wade and by the NFL, they’re really embracing it.”
Davis said he tries to first lighten the mood with humor so he can then connect with players through his own personal experiences. The fact he can be that source makes things easier for Sam.
“By Wade having these conversations with the Rams, it means Mike doesn’t have to have these conversations with the Rams,” Burke said. “Mike doesn’t have to be the encyclopedia of gay people, where every time his teammate has a question, they pull him aside and go, ‘Hey, tell us about this.’ He can just be one of the guys. He can just go in and play football, and Wade can the resource for his teammates.”
WADE DAVIS IS in a locker room. After failing to make it past the preseason roster as a player, he has come full circle. His friends and family have marveled at his role as official LGBT surrogate for President Barack Obama during his 2012 campaign, his honorary doctorate from Northeastern University and the profile on Davis in People Magazine.
“It’s really wonderful that a lot of my LGBT friends and family are really excited about the work that I’m doing and that I’m a part of helping the NFL and just sports in general chart a new course,” he said, “but I just really see this as this is what I was put here to do.”
He is helping the NFL to be accepting of its first gay player and making it more likely the league will be a comfortable place for next one.
“I think Wade Davis of 10 years ago would’ve given anything to have the Wade Davis of now walk into his locker room, walk into the Redskins’ or the Titans’ locker room and talk about these issues,” Burke said.
“Wade Davis the football player would’ve been incredibly grateful for Wade Davis the activist.”