The discussion about gay athletes and the NFL seems to have strayed a bit. Blogs are gay-baiting straight players with “gotcha” photos and salacious headlines. Industry insiders are whispering about the possibility of not one, but four players coming out at once. Nike has made it clear that an endorsement deal is ready and waiting for the first out player. While the debut of an out NFL player (or several) is something to look forward to as it would force the league to confront its homophobia in a more tactile way, youth advocate and out former NFL player Wade Davis says many of us are missing the point.
“I actually think the quest for the first gay athlete is the wrong starting place. We should be working to make sure that we can create safe enough spaces within sports and elsewhere that would make disclosure a safe possibility,” Wade told BuzzFeed via email.
With that disconnect in mind, Davis has teamed up with writer and activist Darnell L. Moore to launch the YOU Belong Sports & Leadership Initiative, which will focus on supporting LGBT athletes and straight allies. The initiative is partnered with Outsports and the You Can Play project.
Speaking about the inspiration for the camp, Moore noted, “We wanted to come up with a proactive solution to the problems that we both assessed — namely, the dearth of attention paid to young people within the larger LGBTQ movement and the lack of conversation and programming centered on the needs of LGBTQ youth within sports environments.”
Here is Davis and Moore’s interview with BuzzFeed about YOU Belong, LGBT youth, and what the athletes they work with actually are thinking about.
YOU belong isn’t the first time you both have teamed up to address issues in the LGBT community. You also collaborate on a column for Huffington Post Gay Voices. Where did this meeting of minds begin?
Darnell: We work together in New York City and would talk, almost daily, over lunch. Our lunch chats would spill over into early-morning and late-evening phone conversations. We soon discovered that we shared so much in common, even though our lives are vastly different: our commitment to LGBTQ issues, LGBTQ youth, and youth of color concerns, and a desire to address issues faced by black men and boys. Our conversations turned into tangible partnerships. We started speaking on panels together, co-facilitating public conversations, co-writing articles, and engaging youth work together. So this initiative emerged as a result of the work we’ve been engaging over the past year.
How did you both come up with the idea for a youth sports camp that targets not only LGBT athletes but straight allies as well?
Darnell: We cannot really recall specifics, but we should credit Bryan Epps, a friend, who planted the seed. It was almost as if we had an epiphany during one of our lunch outings. We wanted to come up with a proactive solution to the problems that we both assessed — namely, the dearth of attention paid to young people within the larger LGBTQ movement and the lack of conversation and programming centered on the needs of LGBTQ youth within sports environments. We figured that our combined experience in sports, education, youth development, and advocacy would provide the perfect foundation for a sports camp targeting LGBT athletes and allies.
Wade, as a former NFL player, you have a unique perspective on the challenges LGBT athletes face. How has your own experience shaped YOU Belong?
Wade: Sports teams are families. I’ve always viewed the athletes I’ve played alongside as brothers. Beyond an athlete’s sexual identity are the important aspects of sportsmanship, teamwork, and skills. LGBT athletes are athletes, period. That’s an important point that is often overlooked. The YOU Belong camps will be inclusive spaces where young LGBTQ people and allies will have an opportunity to learn about and embrace difference as they perfect their athletic skills. We want them to know that they can play as a team regardless of their sexual identity and gender expression.
What have the young people you work with had to say about the possibility of a current NFL player coming out sometime soon? Has there been a discussion about what it might mean for them as youth athletes?
Wade: Just yesterday, one of the young people I work with mentioned how surprised he was by all of the media hype around the desire for an NFL player to come out. The young people I work with are less concerned about the next out athlete, however. They are more concerned with all of the things that they have to face as young LGBTQ people of color. I actually think the quest for the first gay athlete is the wrong starting place. We should be working to make sure that we can create safe enough spaces within sports and elsewhere that would make disclosure a safe possibility.
The first of the two planned camps will take place in Chicago this July. Is this an attempt to address not only the needs of LGBT athletes and their allies, but the turbulence that Chicago youth, in particular, have been facing?
Darnell: One of the first moves that we decided to make was to reach out to those youth-serving organizations who are already doing work on the ground in Chicago. In fact, Dr. Bechara Choucair, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, gave us wise advice about the importance of community outreach and connected us to organizations like the Center on Halsted. The local organizations in Chicago are the experts. They are positioned to let us know the best way to engage the young people in Chicago. We were committed to ensuring that we could target young people who might not otherwise have access to a camp like ours. In fact, we wanted them to be able to attend for free. Chicago, like so many urban spaces that are home to mostly black and brown people, receives a lot of negative media attention because of the increased gun violence that ravages the lives of Chicagoans, especially youths. In fact, spaces like Chicago are talked about often but not really engaged. But we know that there is more to Chicago than the negative stories. We wanted to bring awareness to those youth-serving organizations doing transformative work. We wanted to be part of the solution-making process and not the finger-pointing that has been going on.
It’s fair to say you are both wonderfully ambitious guys. Thinking long-term, what role would you like to see YOU Belong play in American sports culture?
Wade: We would love to see a shift of focus, a focus on youth issues within sports culture. We also would like to demonstrate that sports culture can change when we change. The best way to instigate change is by provoking transformation in the lives of those who will eventually be leading the charge — namely, our youth.