Wade Davis played in the NFL from 2000–03. In 2012 he chose to go public and become the fourth openly gay former NFL player. Davis is now executive director of the You Can Play Project. He has written for numerous publications and just wrote a piece in Sports Illustrated about spending six hours with Michael Sam prior to Sam’s announcement that he would seek to become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
Dave Zirin: Is Michael Sam ready for all of this?
Wade Davis: One hundred percent. And I say that because he was not overwhelmed at all by this. He understood the gravity of it, but he was like, “Look, I’m ready to get this media hoopla over with and to get back to playing ball.” He gets the magnitude of it from a social perspective, but from a football perspective, he says, “Look, I’m a football guy. I’ve been playing it my whole life and I’m better at it than most.” And he’s going to prove it.
Put yourself in the shoes of Wade Davis, circa 2000. If you had come out as an active player, what do you think happens?
First of all, I think people would say, “Well, who is this kid? He’s a scrub. He’s barely making a roster… How many times has he been cut?” But I think the conversation’s different. We weren’t having conversations around athletes and homophobia and sports, or who’s the first athlete that’s going to come out. I think it would be a very different reception not because the sports community is more or less homophobic, but from a national discourse, we weren’t having the same discussions then. There were no marriage equality conversations happening. I just think the entire world was different. I think people would have been like, “Wow, this kid here is crazy. This is suicide.” Whereas with Michael Sam, people are like, “Ok, he can play… so let him play”
How common was it, when you played, as part of the general culture of a locker room, was being “soft” equated with anti-gay slurs, or not being a good player being equated with anti-gay slurs?
In high school, very common. In college, a little less. And in the pros, it’s largely nonexistent. I think there’s always been an unfortunate association with being a gay man as being weaker or soft. The real issue there being that gay men are equated with women, which again says a lot about the problems that our country has with sexism. It should be okay to equate a man to a woman and not to think that means someone’s inferior. It’s unfortunate that this happens so frequently because, I think it is the main reason that guys don’t come out that they’re gay. Because they don’t want to be perceived as weak. It’s not like athletes don’t want to tell their story, or live in their truth. Often our athletic identity and our masculinity are attached. So if you say “I’m gay,” someone will say, “Oh, he’s not man enough.” Or, “He’s not as strong as this other guy.” I think that’s one of the bigger issues.