There are no out gay players in the NFL, but there will soon be one on Necessary Roughness, USA’s light drama about a fictional football team and the therapist (Callie Thorne as Dr. Dani) who tends to the players’ mental well-being. In a two-part episode, starting next Wednesday at 10 p.m. and continuing in the Feb. 20 season finale, Dr. Dani will help the Hawks’ star quarterback, Rex Evans (Travis Smith), come out to his team and to the public. Rex makes the decision after his longtime secret boyfriend threatens to leave him, and Rex, consequently, starts playing terribly (and being an aggressive jerk as well).
The real person on whom the Dr. Dani character is based is Donna Dannenfelser, a co-executive producer on Necessary Roughness. The show was created by Liz Kruger and Craig Shapiro, is a moderate hit for USA, and has already been renewed for a third season. Dannenfelser, a psychotherapist, served as the in-house shrink for the New York Jets in the ’90s. Earlier this week, I spoke with Dannenfelser and the Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, who has made a name for himself as a (straight) outspoken advocate for gay civil rights. Among other things, Kluwe wrote an open letter on Deadspin to a homophobic Maryland politician that has gotten 2.36 million views (and counting). “If gay marriage becomes legal, are you worried that all of a sudden you’ll start thinking about penis?” is one of the many highlights of Kluwe’s letter.
Because of Kluwe’s politics, a USA publicist sent him the Necessary Roughness episodes to watch in advance; he liked them. Dannenfelser, Kluwe, and I then discussed homophobia in football, why no man in major professional sports has come out yet, and what it will take to change that.
Kate Aurthur: At one point, the Rex character says, “There’s so much hate in that locker room.” How true is that?
Chris Kluwe: I’ve never seen anyone really be hateful toward gay behavior or homosexuals, it’s more that’s how guys were brought up. It’s an unthinking behavior to call something “gay” or call someone a “fag.” Having said that, it’s a lot less now than when I first got into the league. I think it’s changing. It still happens; it’s a testosterone-fueled culture.
Donna Dannenfelser: How long have you been in the league, Chris?
CK: I just finished up my eighth year.
DD: Remember — when I was with the NFL, it was the ’90s.
CK: Exactly, exactly. You know exactly what I’m talking about: Just being raised in that generation is completely different from how kids are being raised now.
DD: I also don’t believe that when guys say, “That’s so gay,” I don’t think they get the pain they may be causing a gay player who is standing there in the middle of that group.
CK: It’s almost like another swear word; like, excuse my language, but like “shit” and “fuck” and stuff like that. Guys say that all the time, because locker room culture is we swear at each other all the time.
DD: In our story, he’s saying, “There’s so much hate in there,” because he’s taking in everything they say and feeling a real emotional hit. He can’t imagine coming out to these guys.
CK: It would be very easy to say, “Why would I ever come out in this environment?”
KA: Before the Super Bowl, San Francisco’s Chris Culliver made homophobic comments about not wanting to play with any gay players. That made news. He was condemned — that wouldn’t necessarily have been the case five or ten years ago, because I think people would have thought that was the prevailing view. He certainly wouldn’t have had to apologize.
CK: I think prevailing attitudes are shifting. While guys may use gay slurs in the locker room, they realize you don’t actually hate someone. If someone says that in public, it’s like, wait, what’s going on? We’re not here to hate each other, we’re here to play football.
DD: Our players now are much younger. They’re 22 to 30 years old. These guys have been brought up in a world of tolerance. I honestly think — and it’s reflected in the show — that there are going to be some that care, some that don’t, some that hate, and some that say, “Can you get us to the Super Bowl?”
CK: That’s the prevailing opinion in the locker room. Look, we don’t talk about what we do with our wives, why are we going to talk about what someone does with their boyfriend? At the end of the day, we’re there to win football games. And if you don’t win football games, you don’t keep your job.
KA: So Chris, what do you think of what Chris Culliver actually said? Do you think he’s representing a minority view? He wasn’t just saying “faggot,” he wasn’t just demonstrating ignorance: He was expressing some not uncommon homophobia about not wanting to work with gay people.
CK: I think the thing is with Chris is, he’s probably never been around someone who’s gay or had the chance to interact with someone who’s gay. That’s more a part of your upbringing. Once you become educated, and you’re like, they’re people like everyone else, what’s the big deal, why do I even care about this?
DD: He could have been stating a feeling that he believes he should be stating.
KA: Players come from different religious backgrounds, players have had different commitments to their educations. Is there any training like, let’s help players understand the types of people they might be meeting or playing for? Especially in the city of San Francisco! It’s the worst city in the world to have said this!
CK: In terms of sensitivity training, we don’t necessarily have that. I know with the Vikings, we have, like, how to talk to the media. They make crystal clear to you that you are always on camera. Everything you do will always be recorded. That’s not just your brand you’re putting out there, it’s the team’s brand and the NFL’s brand. You have to watch what you’re saying, because you’re representing a lot more than yourself.
KA: Speaking of being a representative of the NFL, did you get in trouble for saying “lustful cockmonster” in the Deadspin letter?
CK: Yeah, I did get a little bit of a talking to over the language, which I understand. The NFL is a broad market-based business.
KA: I can’t tell, and don’t know whether we’re ever going to be able to tell, how the Manti Te’o insanity factors into this conversation we’re having. When the news first broke, obviously many people thought he was gay and had made up a girlfriend, which wouldn’t have been surprising. Assuming he makes it to the NFL, what is he going to have to deal with?
CK: I think guys will make fun of him for being stupid on the internet. Like, “You couldn’t have Skyped with her just once?” There will be some people who question him. But every rookie gets that. In the locker room, guys will find out whatever they can to make fun of you, because that’s part of locker room culture. You go through it for a year, the bonding and hazing rituals.
DD: That’s the football end of it. The logical end of it is he’s 21 years old. He’s a kid. And he got Catfished. There is a lot to this story that we do not know. Could it be a cover for the fact that he’s gay? Yeah. Could it not — could it just be that he’s 21 years old and doesn’t know what he’s doing? Yeah. There’s so many questions, I don’t think we can speculate. But yeah, will it follow him? Yeah. And then it will go away.
KA: There are two different kinds of closets. There’s the living an out gay life in your actual life kind, where it’s not a secret to anyone but the public. And then there’s truly closeted: keeping a secret. Chris, have you been on teams with both types? People who are out in their lives, but not out publicly?
CK: I haven’t played personally with anyone who’s out in their lives, but not publicly. I know guys who have. And I’ve talked to other people who’ve known football players who are gay. There’s the whole aspect that once you do make it to the NFL, it’s so hard to get to that level in the first place, it’s really tough to justify risking losing that. If you were to come out, that could potentially cause a distraction for the team or your coaches or the front office. They could look at it and say, “Let’s just get rid of him, he’s a distraction, and find someone who won’t be as much of a distraction.”
DD: And it’s that fear, Chris, that keeps them in the closet.
CK: I can totally see it. It’s, like, one percent of one percent of people who make it to the NFL. And how are you going to give up your dream job for something that you can just hide for years, and then go on and live the rest of your life?
KA: So how is this ever going to change, then? That’s depressing!
CK: Someone’s just got to come out.
DD: How is it ever going to change? I think with TV shows like we’re doing, I think with people like Chris — you’re speaking out. Who was the Giants player who said he wouldn’t mind? Justin Tuck: He said he wouldn’t mind. If the coaches and the owners say they don’t mind — it’s having this discussion. And that one man, and I think it’s more than just one man, is listening, and the more he’s listening to people saying “I don’t have an issue with it,” the safer he becomes. And if he has a strong support network of family and friends that are going to be there for him, then he’s the real gladiator. Because he’s going to have to take those hits.
CK: Exactly. And it won’t be easy, because there definitely will be people who won’t understand.
KA: Chris, how have things changed for you since you’ve essentially come out as a huge proponent of gay rights and gay marriage? I would imagine you’ve experienced a parallel track to what an out gay player would experience.
CK: I don’t know that I am, actually. Just because everyone that knows me or talks to me knows I give zero fucks about what anyone thinks. I pretty much don’t care. About the only difference in my life is that I’ve been on more TV shows and radio interviews. But that’s about the only significant change.
KA: Donna, if there were a gay man who has Chris’ attitude, “I give zero fucks” — and those people do exist in life — is that what it’s going to take for someone to come out? It doesn’t have to be someone tormented or under siege like the Rex character.
DD: Listen, it’s going to take a strong man. Whether it’s someone who says, “I don’t care what people think,” he’s going to have to get to a place where he doesn’t care what people think. The reason they’re still in the closet is because they do care. It is going to take a personality who says, “I don’t care anymore.”