On this episode of Mic Dispatch, Mic co-founder Jake Horowitz talks to musician John Legend about Legend’s activism in criminal justice reform and rehabilitation. Then, correspondent Evan Ross Katz meets with former NFL player Wade Davis and others to discuss being out in college and professional football.
Horowitz: Do you think that the president showed that he is somebody that you can work with on criminal justice reform?
Legend: I don’t trust his motives all the time and I think he’s more attracted to celebrity and maybe freeing his friends that may testify against him.
Natasha Del Toro, anchor, Mic Dispatch: With more than 2 million people behind bars across the country, the U.S. is home to the largest prison population in the world, and while many celebrities have spoken out about the abuses of our criminal justice system, musician John Legend is taking action to help people once they get out of prison. He’s funding eight startups by people who are former inmates so they can get back on their feet. Mic co-founder Jake Horowitz caught up with the Grammy-award winning musician to learn more about his thoughts on the criminal justice reform movement.
Horowitz (voiceover): John Legend is a 10-time Grammy Award-winning artist, an Oscar and Tony winner and one of the most recognizable celebrities on the planet. What you may not know is that he’s also a leading advocate for criminal justice reform. In 2014, he started a national campaign called FREEAMERICA, which aims to end mass incarceration by drawing attention to the injustices in America’s prison system. I sat down with Legend in San Francisco to learn how he’s using his star power as a voice for change in the Trump era.
Horowitz: Earlier this summer, we saw Kim Kardashian West walk — march straight into the Oval Office, sat down with the president, made the case to grant clemency to a first time nonviolent drug offender, Alice Johnson. And he did it. What did you think of that whole incident and is that something that you personally would consider doing as somebody who has a voice and celebrity?
Legend: It’s great that Kim used her celebrity in a positive way. It’s not like she did something wrong, but I’m worried that his priorities are wrong in that he’s gonna direct it toward celebrity advocates rather than thinking about the system and making more systemic changes.
Horowitz: Do you think that the president showed he is somebody that you can work with on criminal justice reform?
Legend: I don’t trust his motives all the time and I think he’s more attracted to celebrity and maybe freeing his friends that may testify against him.
Horowitz: Well, indeed, I see he came out and said NFL players, rather than kneeling, should suggest people that he should pardon.
Legend: Well, the thing is, we’re getting mixed signals from him all the time. You know, we have folks that are kneeling for justice. They’re kneeling because — not because they don’t like the troops or because they don’t like the national anthem. They’re kneeling because they feel like the police and the criminal justice system has been unfair to people of color, and they’re using their platform and, at significant risk to themselves, using their platform to say, “We need to pay attention to this and change it.” So if he cares about justice, he needs to show it in more ways than pardoning the friends of celebrities. The kind of steps we really need to take are bigger steps that are more systemic.
Horowitz (voiceover): Systemic change is exactly what Legend is working toward. He recently launched Unlocked Futures, an accelerator program that helps formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs by providing funding for their business ventures. Legend was inspired to get involved after watching his own mother end up in jail multiple times on drug charges.
Legend: They’re us, they’re our family members. I have family members who are formerly incarcerated. I have good friends from my neighborhood that were formerly incarcerated and they want to work, they want to be part of society and we can’t keep putting up obstacles in their way that make it impossible for them to do that. A lot of these folks have ingenuity, they have a hustler spirit, they have an entrepreneur spirit, but it’s been targeted in the wrong direction, and so we’re giving them an opportunity to use that energy, that ingenuity for something positive, and we believe that they’re going to take advantage of the opportunity and do something great.
Horowitz (voiceover): There are an estimated 5 million formerly incarcerated people living in the United States. And, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, their unemployment rate is 27%. That’s higher than any unemployment rate in U.S history — even that of the Great Depression. Unlocked Futures aims to address this problem. Backed by a $500,000 Bank of America grant, the program awarded $50,000 to entrepreneurs who were formerly incarcerated. Those recipients have also received training and mentorship from an organization called New Profit. One of the entrepreneurs that Legend is backing is Topeka Sam. She spent three years in federal prison for drug trafficking charges. Now she runs Hope House, a home and support center for women recently released from prison. The $50,000 grant from Unlocked Futures helped her open the facility.
Horowitz: How do we understand what it’s like for somebody who comes out [of prison], how difficult it is to get a job, the stigma attached to [having been] inside of prison? What is it like for these women?
Legend: I mean, it’s scary, you know. It’s the unknown. It’s the stigma, you know, that everyone who looks at you knows where you’ve been, whether you don’t appear to look that way or not. It’s always failure, because you’ll go apply for jobs and, once they find out, they’ll hire you and then they find that you have a criminal conviction and then they’ll let you go.
Horowitz (voiceover): Unlocked Futures has also funded entrepreneurs in other industries, like Marcus Bullock, who created a photography app called Flikshop, and Will Avila, who runs a cleaning and landscaping business. Of course, this program alone won’t solve the issue of unemployment for formerly incarcerated Americans. That’s why I pressed Legend on reform on the national level and whether he supports the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill championed by Jared Kushner and the Trump administration.
Horowitz: Is that an effort that you take seriously, that should be taken seriously?
Legend: Well, I think any kind of changes in the laws that make our sentencing less draconian, that remove some of the disparities, that correct some of the injustices. It’s a good thing. But it’s also important that those with prosecutorial power, like Jeff Sessions, like our local DAs or, you know, state attorneys general, all these folks, also change their practices.
Horowitz (voiceover): Outside of Unlocked Futures, Legend is also working on other criminal justice campaigns, including one to end money bail and another to help elect progressive district attorneys across America.
Horowitz: And success — five years from now on criminal justice reform — what does that America look like?
Legend: Well, that America is one that doesn’t incarcerate people nearly at the rate that we do. We want a significant reduction, not just a little on the edges. We want a really significant reduction and, but also saying, how do we reinvest in the community, take the money we were spending on jails and prisons and spend it on something that’s more edifying?
Del Toro: We hear a lot about NFL players who choose to take a knee, but not a lot about those who choose to come out as gay. Just ask Wade Davis, the former NFL player who came out in 2012. Now he’s trying to end homophobia in football by becoming the NFL’s first [LGBTQ] inclusion consultant. But can he really help the NFL create a more accepting environment for athletes? Correspondent Evan Ross Katz sat down with Davis to find out more.
Davis: You wouldn’t have wanted me to come out when I was playing because I was an idiot. Imagine you and me sitting down on the day that I come out and I say, “Yeah, I’m really happy to be an openly gay player, but just so you know, I’m gay. I ain’t one of those faggots.”
Katz (voiceover): Wade Davis is one of only 11 known gay players in the NFL in the league’s 98-year history. The Tennessee Titans signed Davis as an undrafted free agent in 2000. He retired from the NFL three years later, after an injury. He came out publicly in 2012, nearly a decade after leaving the league.
[CNN interviewer: You didn’t tell your story for a long time. Why not?]
[Davis: I just didn’t feel that I was ready. And also that me being a gay person wasn’t really what I wanted to be known for.]
[Davis in SB Nation clip: And there was no way that my family, at least in my mind, would accept me. And also that my football family would accept me.]
Davis: I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal, honestly. And then CNN called and MSNBC called, and everyone’s calling. I’m just like, “Oh, this shit is real,” you know, like, people care.
Katz (voiceover): Davis currently works with the NFL as its first LGBTQ inclusion consultant. In the six years since Davis’ coming out, the landscape of out players in the NFL remains barren. As in, there are none. So why is that? Some people point to the case of Michael Sam, who in 2014 showed that the league might not be ready to embrace an active out player on its roster.
Cyd Ziegler, co-founder of Outsports: Right after he came out before the draft, NFL front office executives, anonymously of course, they publicly talked to Sports Illustrated and said, “Oh yeah, he’s going to get discriminated against, 100%.”
Davis: Michael Sam was a gay NFL player. He was no longer an NFL player. If you talk to Michael Sam now he would tell you that “I just wanted to be an NFL player.”
Katz (voiceover): Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2014, but he was ultimately cut shortly thereafter.
[Brianna Keilar in CNN clip: Michael Sam’s NFL dream is over for now.]
[Marc Lamont Hill in another CNN clip: We’ve had coaches on the record, and former coaches say, “I would not draft him, I would not have him because he would be a distraction.”]
Katz (voiceover): The following year Sam retired, tweeting, “The last 12 months have been very difficult for me, to the point where I became concerned with my mental health.” Sam later said he believes he would be playing in the NFL if he hadn’t come out.
Katz: Had you come out at the time, during the three years that you played at all, how do you think the teams would have received that coming out?
Davis: There would have been certain players who would just not have given a fuck. They would’ve just been like, “Oh, OK, you’re gay. Can you make the team?” A lot of people would’ve been like, “This thing can’t be here because you don’t fit.”
Katz: Were you witnessing homophobic interactions, utterances, any homophobic behaviors within the teams that you were on?
Davis: I’m going to be really specific, right, is that no one ever called someone, that I heard, a faggot. What I did hear a lot of — was sexist language that I still internalized as being homophobic.
Katz: When you came out in 2012, were you aware of closeted players either actively or former players within the NFL?
Davis: Yes. That’s the only answer I can say, is yes.
Ziegler: NFL has been around for decades and decades and decades. And that we only know of 11 who have publicly come out, you know, says a lot about the fear, I think, that exists in gay people in professional football and, I think, sports in general.
Katz (voiceover): Outsports, the website Zeigler co-founded in 1999, has told more athlete coming out stories than any other publication in history, according to Zeigler. There have been roughly 700, including that of Conner Mertens, who in 2014 became the first active college football player to publicly come out.
Mertens: From a very early age, I was taught that feelings for same-sex attraction were incompatible with being a Christian, with being a man, with a, you know, being a functional member of our society. I was so detached, and so I’m trying to force myself to stay away from this community that I was so afraid of, you know, identifying with, that my small town mindset genuinely told me that I was the only person in the entire world that was an athlete and not straight. Eventually, I just googled “gay athlete,” and the first thing that came up was the You Can Play project that Wade was in charge of at the time, Wade Davis. And he had a contact email on there. So I sent him this, like, 20-page email, left it up on my desktop for a week before finally hitting send. And then I think the very next search that I had on Google was how to unsend emails.
Ziegler: Wade contacted me that he had been talking to a college football player in Oregon who was interested in coming out to his team and they’d be sharing his identity publicly, and Wade got me in contact with Conner. And at the time, Conner was not out to his team. Conner wanted to, in a 24-hour period, come out to everyone in his football life and then immediately come out to everyone in the whole world. That’s not usually how this happens.
Mertens: I decided that I wasn’t gonna come out the night before I was supposed to. I texted Wade around 3 o’clock. I said, “Can’t do it. Sorry bud. I’m gonna stay in the closet forever. I thought I could be that person, thought I could do it, but it’s not happening.” And he calls me, you know, 30 minutes later and tells me he’s booked a red-eye and he’ll be there in the morning. And by that point I was like, “Oh dude’s flying over here, I can’t back out now. I’ve screwed myself over here.” I’d been writing a letter for years. It was a letter to my hometown for the day that I decided to come out, if I did. I wasn’t there when my teammates read the letter. Wade was there, was willing to answer any questions. But immediately following that, my phone is just getting inundated with texts and emails and calls from people. And I remember just crying because every single one of them was not just support but genuine interest in me and my life.
Katz: Was there any consequence or negativity that came from your coming out publicly?
Mertens: I got four or five death threats. With every single death threat, there was, not exaggerating, 20 different emails of kids exactly like myself that were reaching out for a mentor, that were reaching out for affirmation of who they can be.
Ziegler: Almost every athlete that we write about says the same thing — that they were scared to death before they came out. When they came out, the most homophobic guy on the team is often the first one to get up and give the guy a hug, and they’re only regret is they didn’t do it sooner. And Conner was no different.
Mertens: Coming out on the other side of coming out, it’s just indescribable. It’s just physical weight that is removed from your shoulders.
Katz: What is it going to take to create a culture in which more of these athletes feel comfortable coming out?
Davis: I would like for it to move away from this idea of people having to come out. Like, we should be doing the work for creating the conditions for folks, if they choose to come out, to be able to do that.
Katz (voiceover): Despite that, there are still reported instances as recently as this year of NFL teams asking prospective players about their sexuality.
Davis: So, those were big time screwups. So the goal is to make sure that these scouts understand the impact of asking these types of questions.
Katz (voiceover): To help change the culture, Wade is consulting for the NFL, speaking at conferences across the country and in locker rooms with teams and coaches.
Davis, speaking at a conference: So sports brings out the ugliness in a lot of us, right? Now I want to be very clear that I don’t believe that the sports arena is any more homophobic or sexist or anything else than any other location. But there is a way that sports can bring out the ugliness in some of us.
Katz (voiceover): He’s also facilitating training sessions around how to create nurturing, inclusive environments on and off the field.
Mertens: There’s the common misconception the gay player is going to be the distraction, as that — as untrue as that is, you know, in my experience, my queerness never once affected anything in the locker room or on the field. The only thing that it ever affected was it made me a better player and a better teammate and my teammates closer to me.
Del Toro: And that does it for another episode of Mic Dispatch. See you next time.
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