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Dr. Donna Dannenfelser Headshot

Coming Out in the NFL: Still Just 'Fantasy Football'?

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I have been a psychotherapist for the past 25 years, and as a relationship expert I have been working with LGBT athletes and youth for as long as I can remember. My first experience with the LGBT community occurred in the 1990s, when I was a school administrator and director of student services in the New York public school system. A young middle school counselor came into my office and shut the door. He began by saying that he had a situation that he'd never dealt with before and needed my guidance. Two eighth-grade girls had just revealed to him that they loved each other romantically and were in a relationship, but they were afraid to tell their parents and wanted his help. He said to me, "They're confused, right?" At that point it became apparent to me that my counseling staff needed training on LGBT issues. I contacted an LGBT organization in New York, and as a result, my staff received training not only in assisting LGBT youth but in addressing the issue of same-sex parents. I knew that this parenting situation would soon become an issue, as many of the children of same-sex parents were now reaching school age. My staff needed to be sensitive to these parents, their children and the plethora of reactions that they would receive from the larger community.

At the same time that I was addressing the educational community regarding LGBT issues, I was working with NFL players. At that time it was no secret that if a player found himself to be gay, in the closet he stayed. It was very sad, but it was the way things were at that time.

The LGBT civil rights movement has come a long way, and more and more people are standing up to tell their stories, but there still remains one elusive "last closet": that of the male pro athlete. We have not yet seen a man in the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL come out during his playing career. It tickles me when I'm asked, "Do you believe there are gays in football?" My first thought is that it is arrogant to believe that there are not. There are NFL players who have come out after retiring, so it makes logical sense that there are gays in football, albeit closeted ones. And if there are gays in the NFL, then it stands to reason that they are also in every other sport.

This summer there were 23 out LGBT athletes who participated in the Olympics. This was no surprise to me; sports are a microcosm of our society, so it is foolish to assume that the NFL does not have gay players. These guys definitely exist.

Given that TV is one of the largest and most accessible mediums for our country, I felt compelled as a co-executive producer of the USA Network series Necessary Roughness to address this topic and help spark dialogue and continue to change perceptions. Two of our February episodes feature the courageous coming-out story of one of the players on the fictional New York Hawks.

Coming out is a very personal process. There is no right way to do it except by telling the truth. I tell my players that the best way to do it is like taking off a Band-Aid: Do it quickly while you hold your breath -- quickly because the longer you beat around the bush, the longer you give people the opportunity to judge you, and hold your breath because people can be mean, so let them say what they will, because what they say is more about them than about you.

In our two special episodes, one of our characters deals with the difficult personal decision to come out. We haven't seen this happen in the NFL in real life, but our portrayal hopefully reflects the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly of what may happen. We hope this will foster dialogue about acceptance and tolerance and empower the youth of this country.

I and Joe Sabatino came up with the story, and Mark Kruger wrote the teleplay, which the writers in the room developed. We all were very conscious of not insulting the gay community or the viewing audience. We heavily debated how to do the issue justice, and I believe that our team got it just right. We focus on our player being in a relationship with a man who doesn't want to live a secret life anymore and the struggle that ensues for that couple. We explore the therapeutic process and how it enables these two men to think about the consequences that may come their way and how they can weather that storm. We explore the divided locker room, the difference of opinions and why. We watch as human beings deal with a controversial issue, and we see how empathy and respect can combat ignorance and prejudice.

There is no question that this is a timely story. It draws inspiration from the passionate advocacy of NFL players such as Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens (winners of Sunday's Super Bowl) and Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings, straight men whose vocal support for same-sex marriage and equality continues to draw media attention and criticism. Most recently, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said he would welcome gay players on his team. Last week, one of his players made anti-gay remarks that were quickly addressed by the 49ers organization. In a related interview during the Super Bowl, the New York Giants' Justin Tuck, an NFL great who is being featured in NFL Characters Unite, a USA Network documentary airing this Friday, Feb. 8, that addresses topics of injustice and discrimination, stated that he would welcome an openly gay player on his team.

Society is ready to tackle one of its last obstacles and allow all people to live in peace. For the most part, tolerance and respect have been ingrained in the youth of today, and I believe that the first gay NFL player who comes out will be ostracized by some but welcomed by most. He will lead the way for others to follow, and he will truly be this century's gladiator.

The Necessary Roughness coming-out storyline is part of USA Network's Characters Unite Month, a robust, multi-platform program that spans the month of February and is designed to inspire millions of people to combat hate and discrimination and help create a more tolerant and respectful society. The Necessary Roughness coming-out episodes air on Wednesday, Feb. 13, and Wednesday, Feb. 20, as part of the Season 2 finale.