Wade Davis is a thought leader, writer, public speaker, and educator on gender, race, and orientation equality. Davis is currently a senior consultant at YSC, a global think tank and leadership consulting firm.
Davis played for the Tennessee Titans, the Washington Redskins, and the Seattle Seahawks, as well as for two different teams within the NFL Europe league. Starting in 2014, Davis became the NFL’s first Diversity and Inclusion consultant, focused on ensuring that all LGBT individuals throughout the league have a safe and affirming space.
In 2012, after publicly coming out, Davis was named the Executive Director of the You Can Play Project, an organization dedicated to ending discrimination, sexism, and homophobia in sports. In conjunction with YCP, Davis works to develop curriculum, programming, training, and conversations that are focused on inclusion and diversity. The You Can Play Project has partnerships and/or relationships with the NFL, NHL, MLB, MLS, NBA, USOC, WWE, and the Canadian Olympic Committee.
As an educator, Davis was an Adjunct Professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media, and Business in 2014. He has also served as an adjunct professor at the Rutgers University School of Public Affairs and Administration, and has lectured on the intersections of race, sexuality, gender, and sports at universities nationally and internationally. Davis is the former assistant director of academic enrichment and work readiness for The Hetrick-Martin Institute, where he taught at-promise LGBT youth how to define success.
In 2013, with co-founder Darnell Moore, Davis created the YOU Belong Initiative, an organization that offers LGBT and straight-allied youth a series of comprehensive sports instruction and leadership development clinics. As part of YOU Belong, Davis also began the Speakers’ Collective, which provides support, promotion, and a sense of community for LGBT professionals of color.
During the 2012 presidential election, Davis was an official LGBT Surrogate for President Obama, and is currently both a UN Women HeForShe Ambassador and a U.S. State Department Speaker Specialist. In these roles, Davis continues to travel nationally and internationally to address issues of gender, race, sexuality and class in the interest of promoting diversity and inclusion for all.
Davis is dedicated to using his platforms and social currency to highlight issues that directly impact women and girls. In October 2015, Davis helped launch the Ms. Foundation’s #MyFeminismIs campaign with a series of video PSAs, including one featuring a conversation on feminism with The Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith. Davis recently appeared at the University of Chicago’s Reaching Out conference with ESPNW’s Kate Fagan to discuss the “Run Like A Girl: (Re)defining Feminism campaign and has spoken at the NCAA’s diversity conference to address the intersection of sexism and homophobia in sports as well as next steps for inclusion and forward motion. Planned Parenthood’s current PSA campaign #StandWithPP prominently features Davis speaking on the need to ensure that all women have access to safe, affordable and quality healthcare.
Davis is a frequent guest on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, CNN, ESPN, and BET. His essays and writings have appeared in media outlets including the Los Angeles Times, the Advocate, Huffington Post, the New York Times, Ebony, the Guardian, and the White House Blog. Davis has spoken at and/or provided workshops and trainings at over 100 colleges, universities and corporations nationally and internationally including, Stanford University, Penn State University, Syracuse University, Texas A&M University, Fox, Pepsi Co, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche Bank. Most recently, Davis has consulted on American Crime, ABC’s critically acclaimed series from Oscar winner John Ridley, and guest stars in an episode of the second season.
Wade Davis was born in Little Rock, Arkansas and graduated from Weber State University in Ogden, Utah with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. In 2014 Davis received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from Northeastern University for his leadership and ongoing efforts to eradicate homophobia and sexism in athletics.
A sincere and inspiring discussion took place when Davis spoke with The GM’s Perspective about his life as an NFL player and as an advocate for those who need a voice.
The GM’s Perspective: For those people unfamiliar with your story, you are an ex-NFL player. You are a gay man. You are leader and activist and a role model. You are a shining light, a beacon for those in need of help. When someone hears your name, are you still Wade Davis the football player?
Wade A Davis: I actually think people are more aware of me from my advocacy work less than they are from my football experience. I was a guy that was cut and resigned and cut and resigned and sent over to NFL Europe a couple of times. Even though I had the privilege of signing some NFL contracts, I think that my work outside of the NFL has been more impactful for others and definitely for myself.
GMs: You’ve done more in 38 years than others have done in a lifetime. Could you in your wildest dreams think you’d be in the position you are right now?
WD: I still can’t believe it. I wake up some days and don’t even realize how lucky that I am. I have friends that will reach out to me and will say they don’t even know who you I am anymore. I take that as a huge compliment. It’s an opportunity to step back and witness some personal growth. To go from someone who was so deeply entrenched in having to internalize homophobia and someone who truly did hate himself and didn’t want to be gay or didn’t want to be known as being gay, to someone who’s so openly proud about who I am and proud to share my own story. I would never imagine coming full circle with this much success. I think that so many of us come full circle, but we’re still dealing with demons. Not that I’m not, I just think that I’m on the right path.
I don’t take any of the blessings I have very lightly. I try to make sure that everyday that I’m still doing the work to educate myself. I’m always in the space of still learning. I never think that I’ve arrived at some type of destination where I know exactly what I’m doing. Most times I truly don’t. I’m just fortunate that people allow me the space to learn and to grow.
GMs: The sports world is seen as masculine and macho. Weakness is a dirty word. And of course, the derogatory attitudes towards homosexuality are still present to this day. How were you able deal with everything on top of trying to play a game where you were one of a select few to put on an NFL uniform?
WD: To be honest and this may sound strange, but in a lot of ways this hyper-masculine space provided a distraction. I didn’t often think about the fact that I was gay. I was trying to make a team. I spent so much of my time worrying about that and put all of the anger that I had around the fact that I was gay into the sport. Being 5’10 ish 185 lbs, I could spend so much time in the gym or on the track or running stairs to keep busy. I think being gay actually drove me and gave me this burning desire to prove that I could be gay and also be this great athlete. It was a key driver even though I was just proving this to myself.
GMs: According to an interview with CBS, you came out to a co-worker. From there it went national. Were there any reservations when you went public? And were there others that helped?
WD: I was fortunate enough at the time to have a really wonderful partner that I was dating. He really was a huge advocate and someone who was there for me. I often think now that one of the things we need to impart on young people is that they have to find that one person. Whether it’s a partner, a brother/sister or someone in his or her lives who can be that rock. I say this because my coming out process wasn’t really wonderful. My mom and my family were really negative about me coming out. If I didn’t have someone there until my family came around, I don’t know what I would’ve done. Now everything is great, but at the time I had to deal with it. You need people in your life that can be there when you think it’s the end of the world. I really thought that when I came out my world was over.
GMs: Do you have athletes or anyone for that matter contacting you for advice?
WD: When I came out it was specifically 90 percent athletes. Now it’s young kids. I’ll get emails or messages on Twitter from individuals who don’t even play sports but are looking for someone to talk to. I don’t always have the ability to talk to everyone, but just the fact that they know that I’ll respond means the world.
I try my hardest to stay connected to young people as much as possible. Everyone’s experience is different, but one of things I’m trying to do is stay as connected as possible so that I’m not known as someone who isn’t in the know. What it was like to be gay when I was 13/14/15 is certainly very different now. There wasn’t this social media aspect of it. I was one of those bullies in school, but once the kid left school I couldn’t bully him. With online access kids can be bullied 24/7. It’s a different world. The question you have to ask yourself is how do you stay as connected or as informed as much as possible to make sure that there’s not so much distance between me as 38 year old man and a 18 or 19 year old?
Photo courtesy of Terry Toro
GMs: You are no longer playing, (retired in 2003), but your reach is bigger than it ever was. You are the Executive Director of You Can Play, an organization that “works to insure the safety and inclusion of all in sports – including LGBT athletes, coaches and fans”. Can you discuss your role in You Can Play?
WD: My role has shifted in the last couple of years to really focus on pro sports. We have partnerships with the NFL, NHL, MLS, and the CFL, while developing others. It’s really about how can I continue to have these conversations with current, former, and potentially new pro players about how we can create a safe space in sports for your teammate who could be a LGBT. I would say that my entry point has shifted.
I was a little bit angrier when I started doing this work. Now I’m creating a space where we are trying to create a conversation to open up the lines of communication. So if there is a player who may be against the idea of playing with an athlete who is gay, how do I make sure that my response doesn’t shut him or her down to the point where we can’t move this person along this continuum so that they can be accepting? If I’m in an NFL locker room talking with 53 guys there’s a good chance that some of those guys are going to be against the idea of playing with a gay teammate. How do I engage them in conversation where we can just talk? How can I understand this person’s perspective/background so that when they say, “I was raised to believe that homosexuality was wrong”, I can say, “tell me more” or “I was raised the same way”? We can try to build some bond of brotherhood so that they can see me more than just a gay man, but as someone who is an athlete and brother and has everything in common, except for the fact that I’m gay.
Photo courtesy of Katie Simmons-Barth
GMs: Is the NFL/MLB/NBA/NHL ready for an active openly gay athlete?
WD: Honestly, I think it will depend on the talent of the player. If it’s a great player than they will get ready. If another player is not at that level and he’s a marginal player, it makes it easier for you to not be ready. What you will find and what we’re finding is that teammates will say, “they don’t care, how good is he?” What we have to do is to get the non-LGBT players’ voices in front of the coaches and decision makers more because they’re really the ones who can pull the trigger and make sure that the right conversations in the locker room are being had. So when a player does make a homophobic slur there is someone who doesn’t identify as LGBT who becomes the one who speaks up and stops it.
GMs: You’re also on the Board of Directors for GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis), member of the GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) sport-advisory board and recently named a Senior Consultant for YSC. Is there anything you can’t do?!
WD: I do a lot of work around feminism and see a linear line between homosexuality and feminism. The one thing I’m trying to do is center the conversation around equity for not just men, but for also women. I really think that frees us all. I can’t speak to an experience I haven’t had. I can’t speak to the trans experience or the female experience. I’m trying to ensure that the conversation I am having, that may not be an experience of mine, is directed in such a way that doesn’t marginalize other people’s voices.
GMs: When it comes to advocacy, leadership, consulting, strategic diversity, and inclusion initiatives, you are a leader amongst leaders. Is there anything you want to say to those who look up to you or those who are struggling?
WD: There’s two things. For those of us who want to become LGBT or social justice advocates, have the same type of compassion that we want others to have towards us. We have to have that towards them. For those who are struggling I would say to find a practice of self-love. That could be mediation, reading…anything that you do on a continual basis that shows yourself love. If you can’t show yourself love, you can’t expect anyone else to.