As a former NFL player, openly gay male and executive director of the You Can Play Project, I’m asked one question continually: “When is the first active NFL player going to come out?” And my response is always the same: “Announcing one’s sexuality is an individual and personal decision, so I have no clue.” That answer always creates a conversation around how homophobic the NFL is perceived to be and raises the question “What is the NFL doing to combat that?”
I often try to reframe the direction of those conversations and reiterate how players who aren’t out while playing in the NFL shouldn’t necessary reflect on the NFL and its culture. Players who aren’t out in the NFL weren’t out in college and weren’t out in high school. And now there’s a larger conversation to be had about how we socialize all kids around issues of sexuality, masculinity, and manhood and the ways young boys are taught to view femininity as a sign of weakness. While there’s less resistance to those conversations, many still believe the NFL must do more.
Well, the NFL has been listening and understands the power it has to shift and shape culture. Over the past few years, the NFL has been in conversation with multiple LGBT organizations like the You Can Play Project, GLAAD, Athlete Ally, and the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network to discuss various ways it can enhance its existing policies around issues of diversity and inclusion to ensure that any gay athlete knows the NFL family will treat him with respect regardless of his sexual orientation.
From the first day I met Troy Vincent, former NFL player and senior executive, I knew the NFL wasn’t just paying this issue lip service. We sat and talked for hours about what my experience in the NFL was like as a non-out gay player. We discussed how I policed my every move and tried to re-create the type of masculinity that I thought was acceptable in the world. I even disclosed how my fear of being rejected, on some level, impacted my ability to perform and how gratifying it was to have countless former teammates embrace me after I announced my sexuality publicly.
Troy listened. He listened because he was my brother and we were family. We discussed how all teams are families, and though friction can sometimes occur around certain issues, the strong bond created between players always lasts. And he and I were the perfect example of that. Though we had never met, the scars and stripes of an NFL brother are always visible and welcomed.
We discussed an idea of having the NFL collaborate in the launch of the You Can Play High Five Initiative where current and former professional athletes would visit LGBT organizations to mentor young people and to promote leadership. Troy leaned in and said yes, without hesitation. His only request was to be a part of the visit to accurately articulate the vision and outcomes of the initiative to other teams and players for future visits.
As we walked into the Hetrick-Martin Institute, an organization geared toward working with LGBTQ youth, with former NFL player and current director of transition and clinical services Dwight Hollier. I explained the impact working at Hetrick-Martin had in transforming the ways I understood LGBTQ young people. And how these young sheroes and heroes sit at the margins of our society and face homelessness, abject poverty, lack of quality education, and massive amounts of discrimination, and yet they exhibit the same type of fierce courage and passion to succeed as we did as NFL players. Troy and Dwight’s commitment was only amplified.
Whether the players were talking to the executive director, walking on the youth-led tour, or learning the importance of using the correct pronouns, Troy, Dwight, and the young people opened their hearts to each other. One female who identified herself as a trans woman told a story about how even though she didn’t play sports she idolized a basketball player for his passion and drive for excellence and how observing him inspired her to find something that she could be just as passionate about. The players and the youth shared stories of struggle and triumphs throughout their lives, which created an immediate connection. These weren’t NFL players who sat idly listening to sad stories from LGBT kids. These were two men looking at these young people and seeing themselves. Seeing their humanity. And nothing else mattered. Because we were all family.
Beyond the NFL’s outreach on community engagement projects like the High Five Initiative, the NFL has always been intentional about making football accessible to all youth interested in learning how to play the game the right way. So it was no surprise when the NFL agreed to collaborate with the YOU Belong Initiative for its second annual LGBT and Straight Allied Youth Sports and Leadership camp, March 7-9. The camp offers youth ages 14-21 the chance to learn from professional athletes about academic, athletic, and leadership excellence in various sports and this year’s camp held in the New Jersey area is all about football. The NFL will ensure the youth learn the fundamentals of the game and will also facilitate a player led workshops on leadership. In addition to the football instruction, there are workshops on social justice, health and wellness, and combating bullying.
The controversy around why Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe are no longer playing in the NFL can understandably cloud one’s perceptions about the relationship between the NFL and gay athletes, but work is being done. Training is happening. Conversations are happening. And new familial bonds between the LGBT and the NFL communities are being created as new levels of understanding continue to be fostered.
WADE DAVIS is a former professional football player and the executive director of the You Can Play Project.