Wade Davis: On Sports and Masculinity – The Feminist Wire

Wade Davis: On Sports and Masculinity

An activist, commentator, and change agent, Davis has emerged as one of the most prominent voices of his generation. Davis is a former NFL football player who played for the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks, as well as two different teams within the NFL Europe league. Since retiring, he’s owned a media business through a partnership with the New York Times called InMotion Media.  Currently he works at the Hetrick Martin Institute (HMI) as the Assistant Director of Job Readiness and Academic Enrichment. At HMI, he teaches at-promise youth how to define success for themselves and thrive in society.  His writings and interviews have appeared in the LA Times, Huffington Post, The NY Times, The Advocate, Out Sports,, and other media outlets, like President Obama’s Whitehouse blog. He has appeared on NPR, MSNBC, BBC, CNN, and BET. He has also served LGBT Surrogate for President Obama during the 2012 election.  In the role of surrogate he speaks at events on behalf of the President. Also he’s a member of the GLSEN sports advisory board – where he advocates creating safe spaces for LGBT youth.  Wade was also invited to speak at the Int’l AIDS Conference in Washington, DC in 2012.  He’s currently partnering with the Minority AIDS Institute on improving and empowering MSM to make better choices but also understanding the different challenges they face including shame, stigma, poverty, homelessness and the like.  Adding his voice to The Feminist Wire‘s Masculinity forum, we are delighted to bring his powerful perspective on sports and masculinity.

The Feminist Wire (TFW): Why does so much of your activism center around challenging existing scripts of masculinity?

Wade Davis (WD): As a child, I grew up with a very traditional and myopic understanding of masculinity and that unfortunately framed what I knew and comprehended about sexuality, gender expression and identity, and manhood. So when I finally came out, I wanted to help redefine masculinity on my own terms, but also engage others in conversations to hopefully expand their definitions and perceptions as well.

TFW: What are the links between masculinity and sporting cultures?

WD: I don’t know if it’s sport culture or the narrow stereotypes that some tend to maintain about sport culture. Yes, there are non-athletes and athletes who conflate masculinity with athletics, but I think the narrative is changing and athletes, in private, are having important conversations about redefining masculinity and manhood. And, yes, they may have a ways to go, but so does the rest of society.  I don’t believe athletes, in this day and age, are given enough credit. They understand the world around them and are doing more to reach across the aisle to work with people who may identity differently.

TFW: To transform masculinity, do we need to transform sports; or do we need to transform masculinity to change sporting cultures?

WD: We need to transform society.  The images, the language, the teachings that people are raised with are what they carry into sports.  Athletes don’t enter into the sports world and suddenly change their ways of thinking based on that environment. They entered into the sports world with pre-existing scripts of masculinity. We have to start to redefine masculinity long before they step into a high school, college, or the professional arena in order to create an inclusive environment that is not only willing to accept different masculinities but welcome them.

TFW: Growing up, what did you learn about being a “man” from sports?

WD: As an athlete, one of the first things you learn, and it’s hard wired, is the difference between being hurt and injured. If you’re hurt  you MUST keep playing because tough guys play through pain.  And as the saying goes, “you can’t make the club, in the tub” or you can’t make the team on the bench or in the training room.  And if you happen to be “injured” you must, MUST work with Godspeed to get back on the field.   That’s how I learned to never show pain or fear because both were signs of weakness that would be used against me, not only by my opponents, but by my teammates and coaches.  It’s a part of the “weeding” out process – addition but subtraction.

TFW: Can sports teach us alternative masculinities?

WD: Yes, sports can help give young people multiple images of masculinities and it’s already happening.  From athletes wearing pink in support of breast cancer to athletes stepping up and not being afraid to stand against “homophobia” to female athletes being idolized and given the attention and notoriety they deserve.  The more you have athletes using their voices, without fear or shame, against various oppressions (whether it’s sexism, homophobia, able-ism and the like), the more the younger generations will start to look at masculinity through a wider lens.

TFW: What were the spaces to reimagine masculinity — to reimagine what it means to be a man in this society, for you?

WD: Right now, it’s through female identified persons.  I’m learning that masculinity and femininity for me, at this point, have less to do with being male or female but more to do with my own narrow perceptions of men and women. And I have to continue to challenge myself so I don’t get lazy and stop understanding the oppressions of others and how I do or don’t play a role in them.  But more specifically, the readings of Audre Lorde and Melissa Harris Perry have been helpful in seeing myself as man, by looking through the eyes of women.  That’s something I can never do but something I must “attempt” to understand if I want to truly understand what it means to exist and be identified as a man.

TFW: Who are your male role models, and what have they taught you?

WD: That’s easy, and he will be so embarrassed but, Eddie Ndopu.  Many may not know who he is now but he’s the most inspiring, honest and beautiful person I’ve met in years.  He’s taught me to look at life without fear and to challenge anything that doesn’t feel right because “the good and the truth” can never hide. They don’t have time to and they wouldn’t fit in, even if they tried.