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When Michael Sam, the all-American defensive end from Missouri and NFL draft prospect, announced he was gay this week, he was mostly met with praise for his courage.
There have been no openly gay NFL players, although a handful have come out after retiring from playing professionally.
Wade Davis was one of them. But as he tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson, he believes the time is right for all professional sports to welcome and respect players, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Read More from Wade Davis:
On whether Michael Sam’s decision to come out was a risk
“I don’t think it was a risk at all. I don’t think that anytime someone stands up and tells their truth and lives their life openly and honestly is ever a risk. I think that it’s something that should be celebrated, which I think is the majority of the reaction. And I think in the long run, teams and players and fans will grow to appreciate the magnitude of what Michael Sam did.”
“Michael wasn’t nervous at all about this moment. He understood the gravity of it, but he was like, ‘Look, you know [that] my background has had so much tragedy.’
“You know, losing three siblings, having two brothers who have been in and out of prison, and you know really having to stare that in the face, persevere through all of that, this wasn’t that big of a deal to Michael as it might have been to another individual.”
On being in the closet
It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, like living in a state of double consciousness. You know, where you’re trying to keep this secret inside, and perform all these other things – it’s exhausting. I can remember watching film and being so hyper-vigilant of everything that I did, you know trying to make sure I stood the right way, and ran the right way, and talked the right way; it’s just physically and mentally exhausting.
On why he came out after retiring from professional football
Unlike Michael Sam, I dealt with a lot of internalized homophobia, you know, so much self-hatred, and it really took me a long time to separate from what it meant to be a gay man from what it meant to be an athlete, and to really combine the two. And to know that I really didn’t have to perform these type of masculinities and other things, and that I could just show up in the world as myself.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW, and the professional sports closet door was kicked open a little wider this week when Michael Sam, an all-American football player from Missouri, an NFL draft prospect, came out publicly as gay. Before that announcement, Sam met with Wade Davis, who is openly gay but was in the closet when he played professional football. He's now executive director of the You Can Play Project, and he joins us from New York. Wade Davis, welcome to HERE AND NOW.
WADE DAVIS: Thank you for having me on.
HOBSON: Well, how big of a risk was this for Michael Sam, do you think?
DAVIS: I don't think it was a risk at all. I don't think anytime that someone stands up and tells their truth and lives their life openly and honestly it's ever a risk. I think it's something that should be celebrated, which I think is the majority of the reaction, and I think in the long run teams and players and fans will really grow to appreciate the magnitude of what Michael Sam did.
HOBSON: But if it's not a risk, then why is it 2014, and this is the first openly gay player who may well be in the NFL?
DAVIS: You know, I think that historically, the narrative that has existed around gay men has been probably - I would say that would lean towards something of the feminine spectrum. And I think now that we're starting to see that - or we're at least starting to understand that being gay is not something that's monolithic, right.
And so now for someone to see a gay man playing in the NFL, it's kind of a culture shock, but it's something that players have known for the longest time. You know, there have been players like Charles Barkley, who has admitted to knowing that they've played with a gay teammate. And I think that there is a big difference between someone living their life not out to the public but being out to their teammates.
And I think that we have to start parsing it out because I have friends now who are out to their teammates in the NFL and in college and have just not felt comfortable to make this big proclamation to the public.
HOBSON: And yet why is the NFL so far behind the curve on this? Because at this point, you can be openly gay in the military. There are a number of states, of course, that have gay marriage. Gay rights are expanding across this country, and yet the NFL is just now getting to the point where it's got potentially an out player.
DAVIS: I think it depends on what you define as openly gay, right, because, you know, it's like I said before. Like, there are players who are out to their teammates. And I think that we have to understand that athletes don't have much privacy, right. So if I'm an out man to my teammates - go ahead.
HOBSON: So hang on, Wade. There are a lot of people in public life that don't have much privacy that are out.
DAVIS: Yes, but I think that we're not giving individuals choice, right. You know, it's almost like you have to be out in public if you are gay and in the NFL. Like so what type of responsibility are we giving to - what type of agency, actually, are we giving to the individual to say hey, like this is my life. I can choose to be out to my inner circle, to my NFL family, but I don't have to tell, you know, ESPN or CNN.
HOBSON: Now you actually met with Michael Sam on the eve of his announcement with a group of other people. Tell us what you told him and what you counseled him about this big moment for him.
DAVIS: Well, to be honest, Michael Sam doesn't need much counseling. He is one of the strongest, most courageous people who I've ever met. You know, it was really more of a celebration of the work that people like Dave Kopay have done, Billy Beane - so there are two guys who have come before Michael who have really, you know, laid a foundation where that someone would feel comfortable to make this type of an announcement.
And it was really just having fun, laughing and joking. He and I are both from the South. So we had a chance to kind of have a country boy reunion.
HOBSON: So what did you tell him?
DAVIS: I told him that, you know, that I'm not here to counsel him. I'm here to be a supportive person in any way that he needs. And we talked a lot about different ways that he can kind of protect himself from the media, about different things that I have learned.
You know, Michael wasn't nervous at all about this moment. He understood the gravity of it, but he was like look, you know what, my background has had so much tragedy, you know, losing three siblings, having two other brothers who have been in and out of prison, you know, and really having to stare that in the face and persevere through all of that. This wasn't as big of a deal to Michael as it might have been to another individual.
HOBSON: We're speaking with former NFL player Wade Davis, and you're listening to HERE AND NOW. And Wade Davis, what do you make of Michael Sam's father's comments in the New York Times? He said I'm old-school, I'm a man-and-woman type of guy. And he said he's uncomfortable with the idea of a gay player in the NFL, even if it's his son.
DAVIS: A lot of people won't like me to say this, but I'm OK with that. You know, when I came out to my family, it was about three to four years of a really tough time. But I think that we have to sit back and go, like, what is the life of a parent like when their child announces that they're LGBT.
Oftentimes our parents' dreams die. So for my mother, when I told her I was gay, this dream that she had for her son has now died. So parents need to time to kind of grieve and to mourn, and everyone grieves very, very differently. I think the one thing that Michael Sam's father did say is that he still loved him. And I think that his unconditional love that he's clearly showing his son will transcend any of his kind of historical understandings of what it means to be gay.
HOBSON: Why did you wait for so long after you stopped playing professionally to come out?
DAVIS: Well, unlike Michael Sam, I dealt with so much internalized homophobia, you know, so much self-hatred, and it took me a long time to really separate from what it meant to be a gay man from what it meant to be an athlete and to really combine the two and to really know that I really didn't have to perform these type of masculinities and other things and that I could just show up in the world as myself.
And to be frank with you, it wasn't until I took a job at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and I had a chance to work with young kids, who are 13, 14, 15, you know, seeing these young people living their truth. And I was like wow, like, if they can live in their truth from this young age, you know, they really helped to inspire me to say you know what, maybe there's a chance that my story can really have an impact on not only them but another person who wants to be an athlete.
HOBSON: How difficult was it for you to keep your sexual orientation secret while you were playing?
DAVIS: It was probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, you know, like living in a state of double consciousness, you know, where you're trying to keep this secret inside and perform, you know, all these other things. It's exhausting. You know, I can remember watching film and just being so hyper-vigilant of everything that I did, you know, like trying to make sure I stood the right way or ran the right way or talked the right way. And it's just physically and mentally exhausting.
HOBSON: Now Jason Collins came out about a year ago as an NBA player, and he has not been signed by another team. Do you think there's any risk of that happening with Michael Sam, that no team decides to take him?
DAVIS: I'm not worried about that at all. You know, I think that there was a big difference between Michael Sam and Jason Collins. I think that we forget that the SEC, the conference that Michael Sam played in, is basically the minor leagues of the NFL. It's a conference that I would say 20 to 30 percent of its players fill NFL rosters. So Michael Sam could be one of the best players and the top defensive player in the SEC. There's no worry on my part.
And I think from the positive reception that he's gotten from players, and now you have some executives and GMs that are speaking out and saying hey, you know, like the ones of you who are saying these words anonymously don't speak for the entire NFL.
HOBSON: Wade Davis, former NFL player and executive director of the You Can Play Project. Thanks so much for joining us.
DAVIS: Thank you so much for having me on.
HOBSON: And you can leave us your thoughts on this story, a big year for the NFL, at hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.