Wade Davis on NFL Players Who Live Semi-Open Gay Lives
Who will be the gay Jackie Robinson of professional sports? Former NFL player Wade Davis talks to Touré about coming out—and how other gay players in the NFL live semi-open lives.
One day there will be a gay Jackie Robinson. An openly gay athlete in a major American sport who's a great and popular player who helps revolutionize the way Americans view gay people. Knowing a gay person, even if only via TV, is a strong predictor of accepting gay people and gay rights so well known people coming out is an important part of making life better for others. But for now there are gay men in the NFL, NBA, and MLB who feel they're unable to come out. The NFL seems a particularly complicated place for this to change given the extreme masculinity and the physicality of the sport. But an openly gay NFL star would destroy perceptions that gay men aren't real men, aren't tough and strong. Recently at a party I fell into a fascinating conversation with Wade Davis, a former NFL cornerback who earlier this year came out of the closet after his playing days. He told me that there are gay men in the NFL now who one might call, semi-open: they are known to be gay by their teammates who are accepting because their homosexuality is not well-known and thus not something they must answer questions about. Davis said the reason why gays are able to exist in the NFL is because of the camaraderie that exists among all athletes.
T: Is there a professional athlete fraternity or an NFL fraternity?
W: Both. There's one that exists in the NFL and there's one for sports. It's not talked about, it just is what it is. Because we've all gone through the same thing so there's a protection that exists if you've gone through what it takes to make it at that level.
T: So the guys in the NFL who are gay have protection?
W: Yes. Openly gay is a bit strong cuz when we think of openly gay we think of walking down the street with your boyfriend but there are players who know that this player may have a boyfriend or may not date women and that's just it. It's not talked about. He's there to do a job, I'm here to do a job, it's not talked about, he's my brother, he doesn't treat me any different than anyone else does.
T: Can you give an approximate number of how many gay men there are in the NFL?
W: I only know of three.
T: You know of three guys in the NFL?
W: Not only in the NFL. There's some in the NFL and some in the NBA.
T: Known names?
W: I wouldn't say they're known names but one's a starter.
T: And a significant contributor?
T: So what's the lifestyle of someone who's, let's call it, semi-open? Because women are part of the culture of being in the NFL. You talked about being in strip clubs and making it rain just to prove that you weren't. This sort of person doesn't have to do that because their teammates know and accept that?
W: If a guy is known to not roll that way he just exists the same way you and I would when you go home to your wife and I go home to my partner.
T: But when you play on a team with a guy you tend to get to know him. You see his kids, his girlfriend, his mistress, what have you. So if you're gay the teammates are going to know.
T: So how does that play out?
W: One particular guy I know of keeps things very separate. But everything else that his teammates do he does. If they go to the Waffle House late night or if there's a barbeque or a smoke session at someone's house this guy goes and just exists just like everyone else. His partner may not take part in that.
T: The other players know he has a partner but his partner doesn't go while the wives might.
T: It's an interesting level of acceptance.
W: That's just his choice. I don't think the players would have an issue if he brought his partner there. He's just making a choice because it would cause a different type of conversation. And you don't have to deal with that if you don't bring your partner. You can just be one of the guys then. So after a game people are typically waiting. You walk out, your partner's there, you hop in the car and go home.
T: The beat reporters don't figure it out?
W: When I was playing I had a partner. But he presented as straight so people would think, oh that's just his boy. There is no interrogation of people's friends. You choose very strategically when you're in the closet. You choose someone who's very masculinely presenting, who can pass as just a friend.And a lot of guys rolled with crews. So if there's four or five guys waiting on you afterwards no one's gonna know who that is. And there are other guys who don't have their partners come to the games at all.
T: Were you afraid of being found or outed when you were a player?
W: I don't think I was afraid of getting caught. It was easier for me to exist in this cloak of secrecy. I just didn't know what to do. I didn't know what the response would be, I didn't know if it would change the team dynamic, I didn't know if I was ready to own it in front of other people, too. Cuz as long as you're denying it to yourself it's not really real. The hardest time was when I was in Barcelona [with the Barcelona Dragons of NFL Europe]. We were in Sitges, the second highest gay populated place in the world. So we'd be looking down at a resort beach and you see hundreds, thousands of gay men on the beach in Speedos and walking the streets shirtless and stuff. Imagine me being closeted there. It was my worst fear come true. And one thing that worked against me is my popularity. Everyone on the team liked me and that prevented me from ever being able to go out and explore alone. There'd be times I try to sneak out at night and people would be like oh I'll go with you and I'd be like damn. Because I wanted to have a conversation with another gay men like what's your life like? But I couldn't get away. So being there was the hardest time in my life and my play suffered. I'd never played so bad because there was so many gay men. Nowhere you went there weren't lots of attractive gay men.
T: Remember that 2002 Sterling Sharpe interview on HBO's RealSports? He said if you came out as gay on Monday you wouldn't make it to Sunday. You wouldn't make it to the other team because you wouldn't want the other team to think differently of you. And he seemed to think that was not a bad thing. You were in the league then. Was he right?
W: I don't believe that he was correct. I think if you asked Sterling Sharpe if Brett Favre said he was gay would he have taken Brett Favre out? No way. I think Sterling was thinking this guy would be the last guy on the roster. If Tom Brady said he was gay they wouldn't take Tom Brady out.
T: So ok the star player comes out, then we'll accept that but if the bench player comes out he'll get taken out.
W: No, I don't think he'll be taken out and I think Sterling Sharpe's argument is bull.
T: It's bull for the top guy.
W: It's bull for all the guys. Everyone knows the hard work that guys put in. They may not socialize with him outside of football because of some religious beliefs or because they're uncomfortable but I don't believe anyone would intentionally take a player out.
T: But football is an extremely masculine corner of the world. Is it an extra challenge to introduce homosexuality into that world when for some men being gay means you're not really a man and being around gays is a challenge to their own sense of masculinity?
W: I think the real issue is that the idea that a gay man could play sports is an attack to straight guys' masculinity. This gay guy can play my sport better than me? What does that say about me as a straight guy? I think that's why people had an issue. I think the world is evolving around the idea of what is masculinity. I think the adage is true: the more people who are gay are coming out the more exposure you have to gay people and you realize all gay people aren't just one way. So you realize this person can be gay and be an amazing athlete. And all gay men don't want every other guy that walks down the street. I think people are being educated to that. You ask most straight guys and they think that every other gay man wants you. Most people look awful naked.
T: But what about the locker room dynamic? There you're showering and getting naked with other men more so than any other place in society. For some straight men that's a threatening thing.
W: There'll be some who say that but the fraternity dynamic out rules that. And I say that because you look at your teammates as your brothers. So when you're my teammate would I ever want to look at you in a sexual way knowing you're my brother, my family member? No. And that dynamic would succeed any idea that most players would have that this guy's looking at me like he wants me. It's like if I was a guy and I was in the female locker room I'd be excited. Not if they were your sister. But the thing is becoming a professional athlete is the biggest of challenges. That's why some players exist and no one cares.
T: Do you think many gay players get weeded out along the way so they're shoved out of the culture making it harder to get to the professional level?
W: If you're a gay player who can pass, and I use that word unfortunately, then no one knows. No one knew about me. And I think most players take the attitude that if they could pass they will. If they can't then most likely in high school more than college or the pros there is that weeding out process. People don't understand their own sexuality in ninth or tenth grade so you're definitely going to be resistant against someone else who you may assume is gay. There was a guy in my high school and everyone believed he was gay. They called him the Faggot [name]. If he played football he would've definitely been pushed out you don't understand it at that age. I think there are players who are out in colleges now that people probably know who are gay and if you can play most guys are like man, just play. I just think we're in a different space now.
T: When you get to that Jackie Robinson, that extraordinary player who's gay but he's so good you can't front, do you think about the impact that that would have on America when that moment comes?
W: I think about that moment a lot and that moment really scares me. I think we exist in a society that's looking for a specific type of player who's gay. Would we need a face of gay athletics who's got gold fronts and dreds? You think that the media and Nike would do all this and that for them? Imagine if this person is someone who didn't go to Stanford, who's maybe not as articulate as we like. Who's like Two Chains. Is he going to be the face of this LGBT sports movement? No. There's not a chance in Hell. And what if this athlete says I'm gay but I want to do my work silently. I'm gay, I've owned it, I've given everyone that. Now I just want to play ball. Is the media going to be ok with that? Are my fellow LGBT sports pundits going to be ok with that?
T: So you're worried about who it is.
W: I'm worried about who it is and the idea that they have to do all these things the way that we want them to do it. That we've removed all the agency that they have. That's what I'm worried about. What if he says I don't want to be on the cover of Out? I don't want to be sexualized. Everyone doesn't exist in that sphere and if he doesn't follow that pre-existing roadmap then he's not going not be good enough to be that person. If I'd have come out while I was playing I would've said the most screwed up stuff in the world about gay youth. Because I didn't know. I didn't have the language to talk about it. I wasn't reading books, I was reading playbooks. I promise if, I'd have been out I would've said to guys, 'The faggot just dominated you." Guaranteed. 100%. I know that word is horrific and gets kids bullied and killed but I guarantee if I was out I would've said that to people.
T: The responsibility of representing for all gay people would've been beyond you.
W: We want this person to come out and save the world when he's probably not even ready to save himself. Because I needed to save Wade first. I was scared to say to myself Wade Davis you're gay. Saying that in the mirror was heavy. The stigma associated with being gay was too heavy to bear.
T: But what we have now is guys who are hiding.
W: Do you think no one in the NFL, NBA or MLB knows these guys are gay? There's probably at least one guy on a team that everyone knows is gay and no one's saying anything. I guarantee that exists. Because guys grow up just wanting to be athletes. They didn't want to be the gay athlete. You have guys saying I knew I was gay when I was three. You probably knew you wanted to be an athlete before that. So guys just want to exist, to be a ballplayer.
T: So there are semi-open guys in the NBA as well?
W: I only know of one.
T: Is it different in the NBA?
W: There's a perception that the percentage of gay guys in the NBA is higher than in the NFL.
T: Is the burden solely on the gay players to start coming out or is it also on the straight players to make it acceptable?
W: Yes, straight guys must start affirming the fact that they're ok with playing with gay teammates. Because there are more straight players. If all of them create this voice, if Peyton Manning and all these other guys come out and say something people will say maybe I need to listen or revisit my way of thinking now because these guys are ok with it. But I never felt the players in the NFL didn't allow me to be gay. I was not suppressed. I want people to know that. It was a decision I made because of how I felt about myself.
T: There wasn't social pressure to not come out?
W: That social pressure that was there I didn't feel that from the NFL. That already lived within me. That would've lived within me whether I was playing in the NFL or whether I was working second shift at the post office. I felt so welcomed in the NFL. I had Samare Rolle and those guys taking me to their house and we'd hang out. Those guys took care of me.
T: They didn't welcome all of you.
W: I didn't give them a chance.
T: You think that if you had let them know all of you they would've been cool?
W: It's easy for me to say that now. I've had guys reach out to me and say hey man, I love you, it's cool. But it's easier for them, too, cuz they're not playing. But no one can tell me what happens on the field would change. If a QB comes out and says he's gay will he get hit harder? That's bull. If a wide receiver goes across the middle of the field he's gonna get hit hard regardless. That's just the mentality that you're groomed with from a young age: you have to hit the hardest. You just have to. That mentality is not going to change because someone's gay. There's no way you can say I'm gonna hit this guy harder. You're always trying to hit someone hard! I have my livelihood to maintain. Ronnie Lott's name was made by hitting guys are hard as he could and knocking them out of the game. He didn't know if they were gay or not. He still tried to kill them. Is that going to change because I'm gay? No.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article contained a photo that incorrectly identified Wade Davis.