Wade Davis, a former NFL player-turned activist, visited campus for the College’s annual Anything But Straight in Athletics event.
The event, which typically includes a talk by a prominent sports figure, is dedicated to raising awareness about gay athletes who play at every level of every sport.
Davis, who came out as gay in 2012, several years after retiring from professional football, now speaks out against homophobia and discrimination in sports
Davis came at the invitation of Bowdoin’s Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity and the Department of Athletics, and gave a formal address in the evening. Prior to this, he met for a more casual conversation with students in Quinby House and he had dinner in Thorne Hall with some players on the football team.
At an afternoon chat in the living room of Quinby House, students interested in meeting Davis settled themselves into chairs arranged in a circle. Jarred Kennedy-Loving ’15 moderated the discussion, asking questions that prompted Davis to open up about his life. Davis reassured Kennedy-Loving and the rest of his audience that he’d answer any question. “I’m an open book. You just can’t have my shoes.”
Already a focal point of the circle, Davis brightened his presence by wearing a pair of neon-yellow high tops. He explained that he sometimes wears unconventional shoes — even pink sneakers — when he gives talks to stir people up a bit. “What, a football player wearing pink shoes?” he said. “It makes people pause, think.”
And this pause, on a more serious level, is the point of his work. He wants people to stop and think before making judgments based on a person’s masculinity, femininity or race. “We put people in boxes to feel safe,” he said. “In this world we don’t like to be uncomfortable.” Davis urged the students to push themselves into uncomfortable situations and jobs, because only then would they grow and change.
To push students to rethink their notions about football, he asked them to see football not just as an aggressive sport, but as loving and compassionate. “Family and solidarity are the root of football — the root of all team sports,” he said. “There is homophobia, but that doesn’t make the whole sport homophobic. …Society needs to peek behind the curtain because sports have always been accepting places, because you have to be, you all have the same goal.” He said his teammates did get angry at him when he came out, but only because they were hurt he hadn’t trusted them enough to tell them earlier. “I bought into the myth, too,” he said.
Kennedy-Loving posed a number of questions to Davis, at one point asking him to describe a time in his life when he had not felt “manly enough.”
Davis, who was born in Arkansas and started playing football at age 7, answered, “When I first realized I could be gay.” Growing up where he did, he was told that being gay was the equivalent of being weak. “I liked the idea of people thinking I was tough,” he said, “and if I was gay, those things couldn’t coexist.”
Davis admitted he was a bully in high school, targeting gay students who were out. “I couldn’t deal with their courage, their strength,” he said.
When he finally did accept his sexuality, Davis realized he would be taking on another burden. “I was like, man, I have to deal with another type of oppression?” he said, lightening this statement with a smile. Being gay and black has made it difficult for Davis to find a place for himself. “I didn’t know how to show up in the world,” he said. “It’s still a problem for me, finding community. I’m 36 years old and I don’t always feel like I fit in.”
After the talk, Kennedy-Loving said he appreciated Davis for bringing to campus an open and honest dialogue about the complexities of being black, gay and an athlete. “As a black gay male athlete myself, I have wanted to talk about the complexities of those identities,” Kennedy-Loving said. “I think Davis did a wonderful job at capturing how he continues to work through his identities to be ‘human.’”