Former NFL player talks diversity training for athletes

Feb 18, 2014

When former University of Missouri football player Michael Sam came out as gay earlier this month, his story received national attention because he might become the NFL’s first openly gay player.

Sam came out to his teammates last August. That season, he became the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and helped lead the Tigers to a 12-2 record. Sam’s coming out raised speculation about whether his sexual orientation would negatively affect his NFL draft prospects, and it sparked a wider conversation about working toward a universal acceptance of LGBTQ athletes.

Wade Davis is a former NFL player, and he came out as gay after he retired. Davis is now the executive director of the You Can Play project, an organization that provides diversity training to sports teams, including the MU football team. In this interview, Davis discussed techniques for diversity training and described his organization’s goals.

What does the You Can Play project aim to accomplish with each team it advises?

Davis: One of the big goals is to show some visibility, because oftentimes an athlete doesn’t know that there are resources that are available, or that coaches are actually conscious that they may have a gay player or a trans player on their team. Now, my coaching staff is taking steps to ensure I feel safe. I think that’s one of the larger deals. One of our goals is to make all sports accessible to anyone who’s LGBTQ. I mean that’s our larger goal—and to bring some visibility to it and to bring really spacious and open conversations. I think that those three objectives are being accomplished.

In the New York Times article, they talk about the You Can Play project and how when the diversity training took place at Mizzou, that was the first time that Michael Sam kind of indicated to his coaches that he was gay. Did you talk to Michael Sam or anyone else involved in the story at all about the role that the You Can Play project or diversity training played in Michael Sam's coming out?

Davis: No. To be honest, I don’t think we can take much credit for that. We are grateful that that happened that we were mentioned, but I think what Michael Sam’s story speaks to and how it intersected with YCP is honestly that we just created an opportunity for him to have a conversation where athletes can feel safe enough to share anything and everything. We try to be very intentional about not making anyone feel like anything that they say is going to be judged or that anything they say is wrong. So if someone says, “Hey I’m nervous about sharing a locker room,” we go, “Good, thanks for sharing that, now let’s talk about how we can alleviate some of your fears.” We never say we’re going to change someone’s heart or mind because if you enter a space with that mindset, you’re assuming something’s wrong with you.

How common is this training on university athletics teams?

Davis: It’s getting to be more and more. I’ve probably in the last year spoken at 50 to 100 schools, I’ve been on panels at over 30 schools, I’ve written, I’ve had young people reach out to me. I think colleges are really seeing that the time is now to engage their students and coaches and admin, so it’s really really prevalent.

Some people contend that diversity training is ineffective, what would you say to those people?

Davis: I would say it depends on the messages, and it depends on whether people work from a deficit model or an asset model and whether or not people enter these conversations telling someone what they believe is wrong. Whenever you walk into diversity training seminars and tell someone, “What you believe is wrong, and I’m here to change you,” then yes, diversity training is terrible. Because people have dug in their heels even further about what their beliefs are. But I believe that anytime someone stands up like Michael Sam did and tells their truth, the world changes.

What is your ultimate goal for the You Can Play project?

Davis: To put ourselves out of business.