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Wade Davis Jr. Describes The Fear Of Being Outed While He Was In The NFL

Former NFL player Wade Davis Jr. became the NFL's first LGBT inclusion consultant.
Former NFL player Wade Davis Jr. became the NFL's first LGBT inclusion consultant.

Updated June 24, 2021 at 2:42 PM ET

When Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders came out in an announcement on Instagram, former NFL player Wade Davis Jr was one of the first to congratulate him.

Davis Jr came out in 2012, almost a decade after his own football career had ended.

He tells Morning Edition host Rachel Martin that his time as a football player was marked with the constant fear of being outed.

"There's a certain type of macho that one knows that they have to perform in order to attempt to be accepted," he says. "So I was very conscious of the way that I walked, the way that I talked."

At one point, while watching film with his team, he remembers worrying his team would realize he was gay.

"When you're supposed to be in the film room thinking about how to get better, I'm thinking so desperately that I hope no one watching can see me the way that I believe that I see me," Davis Jr recalls.

Davis Jr says the national conversation around LGBTQ rights has progressed since his playing days.


Interview Highlights

The way [Nassib] said it made it seem sort of casual. How is that different than when you came out after you left the NFL?

What's different now is that you'd be hard pressed to meet anyone who doesn't know someone who's LGBTQ. So I think that LGBTQ folks have been just so visible, so courageous and so present that Carl's announcement, it didn't feel like that this was the first time or the last time that this is going to happen. And I don't want to downplay it, but it felt different from Michael Sam [who, in 2014, was the first openly gay athlete to be drafted by the NFL]. It felt different from Jason Collins [who came out in 2013, making him the first openly gay active athlete in the NBA]. It was different. And I think that that difference that is really hard to articulate is what it feels like or is what it means when gay men have reached a certain level of of acceptance in the public sphere. I think we still haven't got there when it comes to trans and nonbinary folk. So I still think that we have still a larger conversation that us as gay men who have lots of power, access and privilege need to be at the forefront of continually centering that conversation.

You've described your time playing in the NFL as a feeling like you had schizophrenia. Can you describe some of those experiences?

I remember being at practice and you're just so hyper vigilant of everything that you do because there's a certain type of macho that one knows that they have to perform in order to attempt to be accepted. So I was very conscious of the way that I walked, the way that I talked. And I remember watching film one day and everything is recorded and I remember thinking, God, I'm walking gay. I remember thinking I'm standing gay. And I remember thinking, God, like, I'm running gay. And when you're supposed to be in the film room thinking about how to get better, I'm thinking so desperately that I hope no one watching can see me the way that I believe that I see me. That is no way for anyone to thrive in any type of environment.

I think that we have to have much more of a nuanced conversation to just say, hey, the NFL has a responsibility and can take ownership of its lack of taking on that responsibility. But all of us are actively in some ways participating in the perpetuation that men and women should comport themselves in certain ways. And when we all can take ownership of that, then we all can be a part of the solution, and not just thinking: these institutions, these people, these places actually have most of the labor.

What's the next step in that effort?

Part of the next step is for, let's say those in power, owners and coaches, to be much more fluent and sophisticated in their ability to talk about the impact that LGBTQ folks have had on them and the specific actions that they're going to take in ensuring that locker room spaces, sports facilities and stadiums are less homophobic and less sexist. I think society has to have an even more sophisticated conversation about how the root of homophobia is sexism. That the ways that we have structured many of our institutions where women are seen as competition and that boys grow up believing that we need to have dominion over women in order to prove our manhood and masculinity. It creates the conditions for we to also think of gay folks as less than.

The last thing that I'll say is that we have got to move away from seeing someone like a Carl or Michael Sam and thinking that they're only going to be models for folks who are LGBT. They are also models for folks who are heterosexual. And when people can articulate why Carl is going to help them rethink manhood, rethink masculinity, then you start to see a fraying of that old ancient bargain that says men are only one way and women are only another way.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.