RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders announced he was gay on Instagram earlier this week, he said he wasn't looking to make history.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CARL NASSIB: I'm a pretty private person, so I hope you guys know that I'm really not doing this for attention. I just think that representation and visibility are so important. I actually hope that, like, one day, videos like this and the whole coming out process are just not necessary. But until then, you know, I'm going to do my best and do my part to cultivate a culture that's accepting, that's compassionate.
MARTIN: Nassib became the first openly gay active player in the NFL. His announcement was celebrated across the sports world. One of the first to congratulate Nassib was former NFL player Wade Davis Jr., who came out in 2012, long after his football career was over. He describes feeling constantly fearful of being outed during his playing days. I asked Davis how he responded when he heard Nassib's statement.
WADE DAVIS JR: The statement actually made me smile even more than I was (laughter) expecting to.
DAVIS: What I felt from Carl was that he was intentional to not try to make it about him. But he really understood, as he said, the impact of representation. And I think that it offers the opportunity to have a much larger and broader conversation.
MARTIN: How is that different than when you came out after you left the NFL?
DAVIS: What's different now is that you'd be hard-pressed to meet anyone who doesn't know someone who's LGBTQ. So I think that LGBTQ folks have been just so visible, so courageous and so present that Carl's announcement - it didn't feel like - that this was the first time or the last time that this is going to happen, right? And I don't want to downplay it, but it felt different from Michael Sam. It felt different from Jason Collins. It was different.
And I think that that difference, that is really hard to articulate, is what it feels like or is what it means when gay men - right? - have reached a certain level of acceptance in the public sphere. I think we still haven't got there when it comes to trans and non-binary folk. So I still think that we have, still, a larger conversation that us, as gay men who have lots of power, access and privilege, need to be at the forefront of continually centering that conversation.
MARTIN: You mentioned Michael Sam. I mean, he was the most prominent player - right? - football player to come out until Carl Nassib. Sam came out in 2014. He was this great college player. But after his announcement, he dropped to the bottom of the NFL draft. He was cut in the preseason. Do you think his experience was seen by other closeted gay players at the time that you pay a price if you come out?
DAVIS: I would be, you know, foolish to not say yes. You know, I can put myself in their shoes and to think that if I wasn't out about my sexuality, it definitely would have probably frightened me. And at the same time, I think Michael Sam cracked the amulet open in a way that anyone who identifies as gay now in sports owes Michael a huge debt of gratitude. Michael Sam is a revolutionary. He gave up something that he loved and cherished and risked all of that for folks like Carl to be able to make his statement now and it not feel as big, you know what I mean?
DAVIS: Like, when you are doing something greater than yourself, then you're oftentimes going to lose something in the short term to gain something greater in the long term. And I think that the something greater is what we witnessed with Carl.
MARTIN: You've described your time playing in the NFL as feeling like you had schizophrenia. Can you describe some of those experiences?
DAVIS: So, you know, probably the most visible thing that I remember is - I remember being at practice, and you're just so hypervigilant of everything that you do, right? - because there's a certain type of macho that one knows that they have to perform in order to attempt to be accepted. So I was very conscious of the way that I walked, the way that I talked. And I remember watching film one day and - everything is recorded - and I remember thinking, God, I'm walking gay. I remember thinking I'm standing gay. And I remember thinking, God, like, I'm running gay. And when you're supposed to be in the film room thinking about how to get better, I'm thinking so desperately that I hope no one watching can see me the way that I believe that I see me.
That is no way for anyone to thrive in any type of an environment. I think that we have to have much more of a nuanced conversation to just say, hey, the NFL has a responsibility and can take ownership of its lack of taking on that responsibility, but all of us are actively, in some ways, participating to the perpetuation of - that men and women should comport themselves in certain ways. And when we all can take ownership of that, then we all can be a part of the solution and not just thinking, like, these institutions, these people, these places actually have most of the labor.
MARTIN: What's the next step in that effort?
DAVIS: So I think part of the next step is, you know - specifically for, let's say, those in power - owners and coaches - to be much more fluent and sophisticated in their ability to talk about the impact that LGBTQ folks have had on them and the specific actions that they are going to take - right? - in ensuring that locker room spaces, that sports facilities and stadiums are less homophobic and less sexist. I think society has to have an even more sophisticated conversation about how the root of homophobia is sexism - right? - that the ways that we have structured our - many of our institutions, where women aren't seen as competition and that boys grow up believing that we need to have dominion over women in order to prove our manhood and masculinity - right? - it creates the conditions for - we - to also think of gay folks as less than.
The last thing that I'll say is that we have got to move away from seeing someone like a Carl or Michael Sam and thinking that they're only going to be models for folks who are LGBT, right? They are also models for folks who are heterosexual. And when people can articulate why Carl is going to help them rethink manhood, rethink masculinity, then you start to see a fraying of that old ancient bargain that says men are only one way and women are only another way. But we need more individuals like that who just have the ability to have these really nuanced conversations and knowing that you're never going to get it perfect, but we can continually get better.
MARTIN: Former NFL player Wade Davis Jr. Thank you so much for talking with us. We so appreciate it.
DAVIS: No problem.
(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "SETTLING WITH POWER")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.