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NFL Player Wade Davis Talks Masculinity and Pro Sports

February 5th 2018

By:
The Representation Project

Jennifer Siebel Newsom is the filmmaker behind "Miss Representation" and "The Mask You Live In" and founder and CEO of The Representation Project. Wade Davis is a former NFL Player and now NFL and Google Inclusion Consultant. 

Jennifer Siebel Newsom: Like a good chunk of America, I watched the Super Bowl last night with family and friends. With around 100 million people tuning in, it’s one of the most viewed and talked about televised events of the year. But what does that say about our culture? To find out, I talked with Wade Davis, former NFL Player and now NFL and Google Inclusion Consultant. Check out our conversation below as it ranges from sports to masculinity to the role of athlete/activists.

Wade Davis

JENNIFER SIEBEL NEWSOM: Hi Wade! It’s so nice to finally meet you. Your work on exposing the “mask” of masculinity is just beautiful.

WADE DAVIS: Thank you. I have been looking forward to talking to you! I’m a big admirer of your work and have been researching in preparation. One of the things I found about you that just dismayed me was how your agent in Hollywood told you to take your MBA off your resume. Fragile masculinity is so insidious.

JSN: Yes! And that’s in an industry that often exports the lowest common denominator of American culture to the world. You know, I was working in Hollywood and knew I had to rewrite the story and find my own voice. Not just for my future daughters, but for the countless other women who are told they are not enough and that their only value lies in their youth, their beauty, and their sexuality, as compared to their talents and capacity to lead. That’s how I ended up making my first film, "Miss Representation," which exposes how media contributes to the underrepresentation of women and girls in positions of powers and influence. I want to make sure we’re valuing people as whole human beings, not gendered stereotypes.

And that’s what’s so exciting about this moment. This past year, activism has taken center stage. Whether it’s on the field, in the workplace, or on the red carpet, speaking out is so important. So I want to know, what drives you, Wade, to be an activist? What inspiration do you have for the sporting community as we approach the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics?

WD: I have a belief that we are all put here on this earth to take care of each other. If I don’t use my political, social, economic capital to affect change then what am I actually doing? I haven’t always been this way. Back in 2005, I was not someone you’d want to speak to about these issues. I was so selfish, I was going through the world just saying, “How much can I get for Wade?” I was doing everything I could to appear traditionally masculine, to appear as straight.

I just wanted to be the next Deion Sanders. I didn’t know who Gloria Steinem, James Baldwin or bell hooks were. Now I want to follow in their footsteps. To have young people come up to me and say a message I gave or a story I told impacted their life—that is something that I can't train for or lift weights for. It something that happens when you move about world focused on helping others.

JSN: Totally. It really puts everything into perspective.

WD: You’ve made such an impact with The Representation Project. I remember seeing your #NotBuyingIt campaign years ago. There was this Super Bowl commercial that Audi did. It featured a boy who didn't have a date to prom. His dad let him borrow the Audi to drive to the dance. At prom, he sees his crush and goes in for a kiss. Then the shot switches to him driving away in the car, smiling with a black eye. It was a terrible commercial. I credit your #NotBuyingIt campaign with transforming how people watch commercials

JSN: Thank you. You know, we've learned that once people see the limiting effects of gender stereotypes, they can’t unsee them and they want to make a difference. That’s the goal of our #NotBuyingIt campaign—to show that anyone can use their voice to speak out, and that it makes a difference when you do! You know, GoDaddy read all 7,500 of our tweets, the CEO apologized, and they changed their ad strategy as a result.

WD: That is truly transformational. You’ve changed culture!

JSN: Well, we did it together. It takes a movement and that’s what’s so exciting about talking to you. With my second directorial film, "The Mask You Live In," I wanted to start a national conversation around masculinity and I see that happening, thanks to amazing men like you. So if we can be vulnerable for a second, can you tell me how you’ve grappled with masculinity in your life? As a child and then later as a professional athlete?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom

WD: You know I was a momma’s boy, watching soap operas lying on her chest—inside the house. But outside, I was an athlete and I knew the types of things I did with my mom—I couldn’t let my friends know I was doing that kind of stuff. When I realized I was attracted to boys, I knew I had to hide it. So I distanced myself from anything that wasn’t hyper-masculine. I went to strip clubs and generally treated women as ornaments not full human beings who deserved my respect and love. That’s how I lived until I came out. And I’m still evolving. I read a lot now to learn about the lives of those who have different experiences than I do. I don’t see the benefit of living in an echo chamber, there’s no chance for growth there.

JSN: I love that. It's all about growth.

WD: Jennifer, you’re an athlete too, playing soccer for Stanford and the Junior National Team. What do you think sports can do to change culture for the better?

JSN: I think sports teams have an incredible opportunity to change culture by moving from a win-at-all-cost model to a more collaborative, empathy driven model. We need more Gregg Popoviches and Steve Kerrs, men who see their players as people first, athletes second. You can be competitive while still understanding that there are things beyond winning.

And I so applaud the professional athletes who are using their platform to speak out, whether that’s kneeling at a football game, or speaking up like the gymnasts did against Larry Nassar, or even just being a positive consistent role model like LeBron James. Athletes have tremendous power for good and should use it!

Lebron James I Can't Breathe T-Shirt

WD: Totally, I'm just grateful now that I've had so many mentors and people in my life that never gave up on me even when I was wrestling with so much internalized hatred and homophobia. Now I have an opportunity to use my voice to affect change and that means centering the lives of the most marginalized in our country.

JSN: I so applaud your work! And I want to add that as fans, we can and should hold leagues and sports organizations accountable and demand that they reflect our values. Let’s make sure that sports leagues have and enforce zero tolerance for abuse, ensure men and women receive equal pay, and reject stereotypes and use positive representations in their advertising, marketing, and merchandising.

WD: Yes, I definitely believe sports and media have tremendous power for good and should use it.

JSN: Agreed, I’m so grateful to athletes like you who are doing exactly that.

WD: Well, as Audre Lorde says, “If we don’t define ourselves for ourselves then we’ll be crushed in the imaginations of others.” And that brings us back to the Super Bowl. As I watched the game and the commercials, I think about the work I do now in the NFL and the corporate world. I have an amazing job. I get to join men on their own individual journeys to define manhood for themselves.  And I get to help them understand that being a man isn’t static or even definable because as long as manhood and masculinity are definable—the definition will always exclude some and privilege others. Instead, we must create the conditions for all individuals to feel comfortable taking the risk to be themselves. That’s what freedom feels like.

JSN: I was proud to see so many supporters of The Representation Project’s mission come out and tweet the ads last night. And moreover, it was great to see companies like Toyota and T-Mobile present a diverse and beautiful version of America, not to mention Tide and the NFL’s Dirty Dancing spot defying gender stereotypes. At the end of the day, our actions, be they simple tweets, how we interact with each other in the world, or even multi-million dollar ad campaigns, send a message about our values. Watching the Super Bowl this year, I was proud of how far we’ve come in just a few years and am energized to keep pushing for cultural change, one individual and one community at a time.