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NFL players recommend ‘the quiet path’ to LGBTQ acceptance

Wade Davis is one of four former players talking about avoiding labels

Ms. Foundation 30th Annual Gloria Awards And After Party - Inside
Former NFL player, Activist and Writer, Wade Davis, attends the Ms. Foundation 30th Annual Gloria Awards in NYC on May 3, 2018
Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for The Foundation for Women

Before the spotlights, the thousands of cameras and reporters and the screams of fans filled Mercedes Benz Stadium for Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, four former NFL players sat in a room with more than two dozen teenagers and young adults. Together they held a conversation about their sexuality, allyship, and coming out.

“I thought it was a great event,” Ryan O’Callaghan told Outsports. The out former Patriots and Chiefs offensive lineman and 2017 Outsports Person of the Year battled addiction, suicidal thoughts and enormous pressure that he relieved with the help of three Chiefs staffers, by coming out to people close to him.

“I would love to see the NFL use their resources and incredible influence on society to do even more good for the LGBTQ community,” he said.

Last month’s meeting at the Georgia World Congress Center, first reported by Sports Illustrated, was organized by the league and You Can Play, a project aimed at increasing LGBTQ inclusion in sports, from student athletes to the pro level. It was held four days prior to the big game, and was a low-key affair compared to the heavily-promoted inclusion party and LGBTQ inclusion panels aimed at raising awareness of the very same issues the 30 young people and four football greats talked about.

“I don’t use the language of ‘coming out’ at all,” former NFL cornerback Wade Davis told Outsports. “I use the language of ‘inviting in,’ and [writer] Darnell Moore deserves credit for coining that language.” Davis played for the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks and he revealed his orientation to Outsports in June 2012.

And although this was the first meeting at a Super Bowl, Davis has led conversations like this at the Pro Bowl, season openers, the NFL draft, and with owners, referees and players.

Joining Davis and O’Callaghan was Tony Richardson, the 17-year Chiefs, Vikings and Jets fullback who is an outstanding LGBTQ ally. Also on hand was another player who came out publicly only after stepping off the field: Esera Tuaolo, the former defensive lineman for the Panthers, Falcons, Jaguars, Vikings and Packers who remained in the closet for two years after he retired from the NFL.

”Events like these that are quietly held behind the scenes of the super bowl are a good start, and are progress,” said O’Callaghan, ”but it will take much more for actual change to happen.

O’Callaghan is trying to help push that progress with the Ryan O’Callaghan Foundation, which aims to support talented LGBTQ athletes through scholarship.

“I get the impact of what it would mean to have an openly gay player,” Davis told Sports Illustrated, “but let’s take some incremental steps and not make this demand that a player not tell his teammates first, but tell the world. Because immediately this player becomes a ‘gay NFL player.’ Michael Sam is a ‘gay NFL player’—no, Michael is an NFL player who is also gay … Imagine I am taking this identity you have had since you were 7, and now I changing that and saying, ‘Oh, you are that gay NFL player.’ How many of us would want to do that?”

“I agree with Wade that an active player publicly coming out of the closet would have a great impact on society,” O’Callaghan told Outsports. “Hopefully their performance on the field speaks louder than the voices wanting to label them as a ‘gay football player.’”

You Can Play is an important part of this effort, said Seth McNew, the project’s communications manager.

“It’s less about trying to get people to come out, but more about creating the environment where people are safe to come out or play,” said McNew.

After telling SI that “there are players right now who are open about their sexuality — they are open to their teammates, who are their family,” Davis told Outsports he thinks the environment created by the media and especially social media infringes upon that “family” bond a player has with his coaches and teammates. And he said it’s something that is not talked about often enough in these conversations about sexual orientation, both in sports and entertainment.

“We live in the social media world where very few parts of our lives are personal, are private,” said Davis. “And I think that we should allow this specific thing to be personal and private and be an individual decision.”

And that’s why as an LGBT inclusion consultant for the NFL since 2012, Davis creates spaces for what he calls these “delicate” conversations, including ones in which some players admit to discomfort about learning a teammate is gay.

“The biggest thing” that happens, he said: “Very few of them now say they don’t know someone who is LGBT.”

McNew said these behind the scenes efforts, with coaches and their teams, programs and policies, is making a difference, and not just in football.

“All the teams are making a real commitment here,” McNew told Outsports, “and we’ve even found within minor league baseball, we’re doing individual trainings with front office staff, from the GM down.” He said it’s encouraging that the teams themselves are reaching out to You Can Play to request these training sessions, as are universities and high schools.

In approaching young people, Davis said he applies different strategies than in conversations with adults. “Just as when you’re guarding a receiver who has a different skill-set, your approach has to be different.”

“I think it’s very hard for us as adults to realize that young people do have agency, they do have power, and that we’re not in charge of their futures,” said Davis, and that’s a good lesson to help allies be more effective, too.

“I think that often times when folks meet LGBT folks, especially trans folks and folks of color, they have this idea that, ‘I need to save them.’ No, folks don’t need to be saved. We have to stop oppressing them and get out of the damn way.”