Homophobia in sport: 'We're looking for a superman'

When former NFL player Wade Davis was in 10th grade he wondered and worried why he was attracted to men and not women.

It was his secret, one nobody was ever going to know.

“I never even thought about coming out,” he said. “This was going to be a secret I would take to my grave.”

It wasn’t until years after Davis retired from the game and removed himself from the sporting frontier completely that he could begin to even remotely entertain the idea he was gay, nevermind share it with the rest of the world.

“It took getting away from the noise. Sports was noise,” he said. “Living around my family was noise. I had to move to New York where almost no one knew me to create space to believe I could finally come out.”

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The once silent, somewhat insecure gay man living in fear of his secret being exposed couldn’t be living a more different life today.

He’s open, out, proud and confident. Davis is director of professional sports outreach for You Can Play, a feminist, and an NFL inclusion consultant. He’s relentless in his activism in making sporting spaces more inclusive for all walks of life.

“I work with players, teams, managements to get them to understand why it’s important to create culture within the NFL and all sports, that allows people can show up as themselves,” Davis said. “If a player is gay, they can be that. If a player wants to have a discussion around race, they can have that.

“The way I move around this world, my creativity, the work I do, will never be as great if I’m doing that in silence or if I’m doing it in the proverbial closet.”

The cost of silence is great

Davis says there’s not only a personal loss in staying silent and hiding aspects of oneself, but he says there’s also a cost to the public as a whole.

“And the cost is not just to me as an individual but it’s a cost to the world. The world misses out on so much when people can’t be themselves.”

Coming out when Davis was playing professional football was never even something he thought about. It was a non-starter. Contrast that to the story of Michael Sam.

In 2014, the Missouri All-American became the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL. The media circus that followed was suffocating and at times too much for Sam. Many questioned his decision to come out. Some believed it affected his prospects of being signed by an NFL team.

Gay Athletes Coming Out

Former NFL player Wade Davis, seen at the 2013 Chicago Gay Pride Parade, announced he was gay nine years after retiring and his now the league’s inclusion consultant. (Scott Eisen/Associated Press)

“When Michael Sam decided to tell the world that he was gay there was no model or playbook he could turn to that would let other people know,” Davis said.

Sam was picked by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the 2014 draft  and immediately celebrated by kissing his boyfriend during the televised event.

Shortly after being signed by the Rams, however, Sam was cut from the team. He was immediately picked up by the Dallas Cowboys practice squad only to be cut again. He made a final football stop with the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League only to leave because of what he called a “roller-coaster” of events and that he was worried about his mental health.

Many have pointed to Sam’s being gay for his demise. Davis sees it a little differently.

“I am a friend with [then-Tennessee] coach Jeff Fischer,” Davis said. “He’s someone I trust and the conversations I have had with him lets me know with a certain level of honesty Michael Sam was given a shot to make that team.

“There are many other players who have wanted to make an NFL team and didn’t. I was cut numerous times. Michael Sam being gay didn’t play a role in the types of opportunity he should have gotten.”

And while some point to Sam’s disappearance from football as more ammunition for athletes to stay closeted while playing pro sports, Davis says he couldn’t disagree more.

“What Michael Sam did was something that was revolutionary. Michael Sam should always be looked at as a change-maker.”

‘We’re looking for a superman’

Davis says there needs to be a monumental shift when it comes to the conversation around waiting for a pro athlete to come out during their playing career. He says people aren’t really waiting for any pro athlete, however, a specific type of athlete.

“We’re looking for a superman,” Davis said. “And we’re probably waiting for a cisgendered white male to come out in one of the four big sports.”

Davis says not enough credit has been given to women athletes who he says have courageously “come out in droves” because there’s still so much of a focus on a patriarchal system.

“We believe only men can liberate us,” he said. “At the root of homophobia is sexism. So until we do the work where women aren’t repressed in this world, then we can never create a world where any others are repressed.”

Above all, Davis says athlete coming out stories are still vital to society because there are still not enough representations of LGBTG athletes succeeding.

“Until the lion has a historian the hunter will always be the hero,” Davis said.

“These stories should be told and have to be told if we care about the humanity of our brothers and sisters. We have to share stories of LGBTQ athletes as heroes and as full human beings and capable as playing sports.”

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CBC | Sports News