Gay former NFL player Wade Davis addressed coaches and general managers at the NFL annual meeting in Orlando on Monday, talking about sexual orientation, homophobia and gays in the locker room. With just a 30-minute presentation and Q&A session, he sped up the course of the NFL on LGBT issues. While the NFL has been headed in the right direction for the last several years, executives and coaches Monday saw the potential for improving team culture, and they saw the first step to get there.
From all reports his presentation was incredibly well-received, with "many" coaches and GMs approaching Davis with praise after the meeting. Various folks from Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid to San Diego Chargers head coach Mike Mccoy thanked him for a unique, powerful presentation that opened eyes.
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"He was authentic," said NFL vice-president of football operations Troy Vincent, who hopes Davis' conversations will open a dialogue about gay issues in the NFL and lay a roadmap to address them. Vincent was one of the architects behind bringing Davis into the NFL fold.
"The hardest thing to do for any outsider is connect with the audience," Vincent continued. "He did that on the kick-off. And he was real. He talked about what everyone was thinking. He addressed those things up front with humor, transparency, honesty and care, not just for himself, not just for people with a different sexual orientation, but a genuine care that we all can do better, that we call can be free."
Davis, the executive director of the You Can Play project, told Outsports after the meeting that his presentation had several focuses. First was to debunk the stereotype that gay athletes are weak. Second was to tell them that gay players aren't snitches - They're not looking to "catch" teammates being homophobic. They want a football family where they can love, be loved, play their asses off and grow as people. Lastly, Davis pointed out that closeted gay players face a distraction - hiding their true identity - that is keeping them from being the player they could be.
"I told them they have to be intentional from day one," Davis said of the NFL teams' next steps. "They can't just talk about 'diversity,' they have to talk about addressing 'diversity and that specifically includes sexual orientation."
Davis said one of the key elements of his talk was humor. He created a running joke through his presentation about current St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher cutting him. Twice. The room ate it up. Davis wanted to lighten the mood to demonstrate no one has to tip-toe around the issues on their teams: Gay players have senses of humor too.
"Wade nailed it," Fisher said after the meeting. He was glowing in his praise of Davis' talked, saying he'll consider bringing him to talk to his team later this year.
"He talked a lot about what a player wants from the organization, and that transcends one specific issue," said Rams general manager Les Snead, echoing Fisher's potential interest in bringing Davis to talk to the Rams. "Players want a family atmosphere. They want an organization they can trust and an organization that can provide resources and help that."
Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer said he is definitely thinking about bringing Davis to Cleveland to talk to the team about these issues.
"His composure and his ability to deal with a subject that some people consider difficult was impressive," Farmer said. "I appreciated his comments, his candor, and his direction. He said it best in his presentation, we just have to be real. Be real with people. Don't sugarcoat and sidestep. Some people have to be bold and brave, and it's up to the individual what side they're going to take.
"Some people will shy away from those issues and some people will take it head on. But it's a conversation we're all going to have. It's just a process of where we're at. As times change, so do the circumstances we have to deal with. It's on the forefront of what we're doing in this league and in this world."
Davis' talk fit into one key focus of this year's meeting: Locker room and team environment. With the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito episode last year bringing bullying to light, and the coming out of Michael Sam, what is said and done by players, coaches and executives in the locker room and front offices is getting strong attention.
"Coaches get it and they want to learn," Davis said. "They wanted me to tell them how to manage this and how they can make sure players will feel safe enough to be out in the locker room."
While this was just one presentation at one meeting, it was a great first step toward honest intra-team conversations about gay athletes and homophobia. Vincent said after the meeting many coaches and general managers sought Davis out to talk more with him.
"He spoke their language," Vincent said. "He went back into the locker room. Within five seconds, he connected. And he got everyone thinking, 'It's OK.' It was so refreshing."
Davis will make a similar presentation to NFL owners Tuesday morning.