From NFL to Activist: Wade Davis Highlights MLK Day Celebration

Former pro football player Wade Davis energized the community on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with a deeply personal story of his own experience as a gay player in the National Football League, as a high school bully determined to prove his masculinity, as a boy very close to a deeply religious mother who considered homosexuality “an abomination,” and finally, today, as an activist who shares the lessons he’s learned firsthand about defusing and redirecting hate.
 
Mr. Davis provided concrete guidance on how “to remove the distance that keeps us apart . . . to close the distance between you and someone different than you.” When the instinct is to butt heads and disagree, he said, ask questions instead. He repeatedly distinguished between “calling out” someone for a disturbing comment versus “calling in” that person to learn more about them. His message was clear: sharing our stories and perspectives can help close the gaps among us.
 
The talk was one event in a busy commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Groton. The celebration marked not only the national holiday, but also the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination and the fifty-fifth anniversary of his speech at Groton School.

MLK weekend began with an inspirational sermon in Sunday chapel by the Reverend Gayle Harris, Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. In a speech interspersed with Dr. King’s quotes, she detailed personal stories of racism she has encountered as a black woman and a black female bishop. She ended with a message of hope, however, saying that she sees a better future in young people, such as Groton students. Several students met with the bishop after the service. “They said it was powerful to hear her speak, and they were moved by the fact that her hope rested in them,” said Groton Chaplain Christopher Whiteman.
 
On Monday, the school continued to honor Dr. King; a performance by Groton’s gospel choir introduced Mr. Davis’ talk, and a reading by four students of a powerful poem by Nailah Pierce ’18 capped off his presentation. Afternoon workshops covered a variety of topics, such as class, free speech and hate speech, media’s influence on sexual identity, LGBT identity in sports, and racism in Boston. Carolyn Chica and Michelle Brito, faculty members in the Admission Office and co-advisors to the Cultural Alliance, organized the day, focusing it on the theme of intersectionality to, as Ms. Chica said, “show that everybody can approach inclusion and equity from different angles.”
 
It’s hard to imagine a more “intersectional” speaker than Mr. Davis, a black, gay NFL athlete born in the Deep South. His talk resonated with themes that would carry through the afternoon workshops.

The speaker said that often, while preparing his talks, he uses writer James Baldwin as inspiration. But he channeled Dr. King while crafting his remarks for Groton, and he shared one King quote aloud: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
 
“Where do you stand in moments of challenge and controversy?” the speaker asked Groton students.
 
For much of Mr. Davis’ own life, he faced challenge quietly, even silently. Not only did he hide that he was gay, he worked overtime to convince others that he was straight. When entering a new high school after moving to Colorado, he became a tough bully. He described going into “extreme panic” after catching himself admiring a male classmate. So he enlisted friends to become bullies, too, targeting those who didn’t fit gender stereotypes.

It was hard to imagine the speaker, as he advocated for kindness and understanding, as a bully. “How you relate to yourself is how you relate to others,” Mr. Davis explained. “When I hated myself, I didn’t care about taking care of you.”
 
Mr. Davis, now an inclusion consultant with the NFL, described discussions with men who would question the #metoo movement and would tell him they knew someone who was falsely accused of rape. “I then asked them if they knew any women that experienced sexual assault, and they didn’t,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s interesting that one in four women will report surviving rape or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime, but my friends didn’t know any of them.”
 
The speaker readily talks about his own feminism, but with a caveat. “I’m a feminist,” Mr. Davis told the Groton crowd, surprising no one.
 
“. . . I’m also a sexist,” he went on. “How could I not be? I grew up in this world, socialized to believe certain things about men and women.”
 
Long before Mr. Davis confronted his sexual orientation, he would play in his backyard with neighborhood friends; they liked a game akin to tag but with a ball. The kids called the game “Smear the Queer” and thought nothing of it. Neither did young Wade. He didn’t tell his playmates that he loved to watch soap operas with his mother, or that he questioned why no women served as leaders in his church.
 
He once asked his mother: “Can you imagine God being a woman?” The idea did not go over well. He tossed that question to the Groton audience: “What would be the impact on you all if you imagined God as a woman?” With one simple question, he had Groton contemplating gender stereotypes and the structure of power and influence in society.
 
A victim of those gender stereotypes, Mr. Davis esssentially was an actor during all his closeted years—including when he was in the NFL. “I was performing a certain type of gender,” he recalled. “I needed you to believe who I was.”
 
He worked hard at it. When a college crush kissed him, Mr. Davis realized he could no longer deny his homosexuality. So he never spoke to that friend again. During college, he made sure he had a beautiful girlfriend. He now realizes that she was “my object. All she was there to do was to be an ornament, to prove to the world that I am a man. I never saw her humanity.” Mr. Davis emphasized the difference between masculinity and “toxic masculinity,” which frames women as objects. Masculinity, he said, should be plural, for there are many kinds.
 
Speaking with a candor that captivated the audience, he admitted: “I used women as a tool because I was afraid to show up as myself.
 
“The only thing you should want to be is to be yourself,” he said. “Everyone else is taken. You got to do some work to find out who you are.”
 
Besides being who you are, Mr. Davis said people have one other primary purpose in life: to care for one another. “How do you do that if you’re not learning about each other?” he asked. “How do you do that if you’re only worried about being right?”
 
Mr. Davis provoked thought with his suggestion that we forget about being right, and even forget about being a good person. “There’s a difference between being a good person and having a positive impact on lives . . . Your intent isn’t always important. Your impact on others is.”
 
After the talk, students and faculty reacted with superlatives. “I’ve heard from coaches and different people about how great they thought he was,” Ms. Brito said. “It was a true talent of his and a gift that he was able to touch so many different constituencies. He really did have something for just about everyone.”
 
One student told Ms. Chica that Mr. Davis’ lessons would stay with her throughout her life. It will take time to see whether the messages of MLK Day continue to resonate and take root. “The true indicator of the impact of the day,” said Ms. Brito, “will be several weeks and months later, if we’re still able to have these conversations.”

See photos from Groton's celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.
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