ORLANDO, Fla. -- A lot has happened over the past year in the NFL to force a league that has always considered a locker room to be its own universe, subject to its many of its own laws and social morays, written or unwritten, to look at things differently.
But two significant events over the past few months have pushed those who spend their days in a locker room, or pick the players who do, to look at it as a workplace that just happens to have lockers. That it is not some vocational island away from the world, but a part of it.
The Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal and Ted Wells’ scathing 144-page report put the behavior of some of the league’s employees under a rather large microscope. And then Michael Sam, the Southeastern Conference’s co-Defensive Player of the Year and NFL draft hopeful, announced he is gay.
And at the NFL’s first full gathering of franchise owners, executives, general managers and coaches since Sam’s announcement, the NFL asked Wade Davis, a former NFL defensive back who is gay, to speak to all of those football decision-makers.
Davis spoke to head coaches Monday and spoke to team owners and other high-ranking team and league officials on Tuesday.
“And I thought it was the most incredible presentation I’ve ever seen since I’ve been (in the NFL) and I’ve been here for a long time,’’ Denver Broncos coach John Fox said. “I think it’s obvious it’s become a bigger part of our NFL. Like everything, we’ve got to learn how to motivate and deal with your locker room. It is a brotherhood, it is a family, you need diversification in everything.’’
“It’s got to be in the conversation,’’ Fox continued. “I thought it was pretty profound, it was definitely eye-opening for me … I’ve probably not done as good a job with that up until now, but after Wade’s presentation, it’s high on my list the first time I talk to my staff when we get back and my football team.’’
Davis, who is currently the executive director of the You Can Play Foundation, spoke for 45 minutes in during each presentation. Officially the talk was about “workplace conduct,’’ but what Davis told those in the finely-appointed seats in front of him was they should be, need to be, ready to deal with and support, gay players in their locker rooms because those players are already there.
Davis told the groups they likely have more than one gay player on their team, that he knows because he talks to them. He spoke of the “double consciousness’’ gay athletes who haven’t come out publicly are forced to live, to be one person at home and another at work. How it hinders their ability to be what they can be as football players for themselves and for their teams.
“It was very well presented, very well received,’’ Broncos president Joe Ellis said. “It comes down to treating all people the way you would want to be treated and respect, integrity, being truthful, being honest, simple core values, we just to remind ourselves, remind our employees, remind our coaches, remind our players, and remind our executives that we need to uphold those beliefs and those standards every day.’’
Davis spoke as a former football player to football people. He relayed, as his opener, how current St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher cut Davis twice as Tennessee Titans coach. Davis, who was a defensive back trying to make his way in two training camps, set the room at ease by sharing his football experiences.
“That was great,’’ Fisher said. “He had everybody right there.’’
Davis also told those who evaluate players and build rosters it wasn’t enough to simply talk about diversity in the workplace. He said the NFL, like any employer, had to walk the walk and live up to the words, that it had to go beyond what was said and heard this week.
Davis said the NFL has to be willing to be honest and forthcoming in how it deals with gay players in the locker room. And in one of the most important items on the list, Davis told the head coaches, they had to build trust.
He said a gay player must feel like he can go to the head coach with issues, problems or simply to talk in an honest, open way. That not always something that is easy for players and coaches to do, but something that has to be done.
“It was something I needed to hear,’’ Fox said. “Just eye-opening.’’
“It’s a competitive business, it’s a very emotional business, so it’s very easy to stray from those core values while searching success,’’ Ellis said.
“You just have to remind yourself that you can’t. In reality this shouldn’t be an issue, these players are a diverse group, they are family,’’ Ellis said. “They want to just come in and be part of the family, they don’t want to be known as the first gay player in the National Football League or the Denver Broncos, they just want to be part of the Denver Broncos. It just shouldn’t be a big deal, they want to fit in, they want to be accepted and they should be.’’