Necessary Roughness Fails to Reckon With Homophobia in Sports

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 20 2013 3:32 PM

Necessary Roughness Fails to Reckon With Homophobia in Sports

Travis Smith.

USA Network.

The USA network is currently running a number of genuinely moving public service announcements. The ads show actors from the network’s hit dramas, a smattering of NFL stars, and a good number of regular folk taking a stand against social injustice. A particularly effective spot shows people in T-shirts that read “I WON’T STAND FOR” and then one of the following: racism, hate, ableism, homophobia, intolerance, Islamophobia, bullying, anti-Semitism, and so on. Those who wear the shirts share their own struggles and testify against harassment. The “Characters Unite” campaign is an extension of the network’s “Characters Welcome” slogan, and it is a powerful, life-affirming project.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

This year, “Characters Unite” has reached all the way into the storyline of USA’s sports-psychology drama, Necessary Roughness. In last week’s episode, the New York Hawks’ in-house therapist, Dr. Dani Santino (Callie Thorne) is called in to help quarterback Rex Evans (Travis Smith) handle the rage that is hurting his performance on the field and poisoning his behavior in the locker room.


We soon discover that Rex’s problem is that he’s a closeted gay man who has been served an ultimatum by his longtime boyfriend, Jim: If Rex won’t publicly acknowledge their relationship, Jim is calling it quits. Rex’s carefully constructed world is threatened with destruction. No wonder he’s so mad.

The personal story of Rex’s emergence from the closet is handled with sensitivity and humor, but the professional aspect—the idea that a professional athlete from one of the Big 4 sports will come out during his playing career—which plays out tonight, is, unfortunately, depicted in a completely unconvincing way. (Spoilers follow.)

The show recognizes that a pro quarterback’s coming out would be a monster news story, and the scenes of the New York Hawks’ senior staff planning their media strategy ring true. The problem is that Rex’s struggle is presented in purely personal terms. “I don’t want to be Jackie Robinson,” Rex tells Dr. Dani, “I just want to play ball. But I don’t want to lose [Jim].” Once he decides to come out, the only negative consequence is some verbal harassment from one—generally disliked—teammate. And even that is short-lived. One piece of rousing locker-room oratory from the show’s hero, bad boy wide receiver Terrence “TK” King, is all it takes to turn the rest of the team in Rex’s favor.

This fits nicely into the narrative of the Characters United “I won’t stand for homophobia” campaign, but it also manages to suggest that spinelessness and a lack of self-love is all that’s keeping gay athletes in the closet. There’s no mention of the financial repercussions that a gay pro athlete would face—tennis player Martina Navratilova, for example, believes her coming out cost her $10 million in endorsements—or the fear a quarterback might have about opponents targeting him personally, or indeed anything about the institutional homophobia an out gay athlete would face. In an interview in Buzzfeed, Chris Kluwe,* the heterosexual Minnesota Vikings punter who has been outspoken in defense of gay rights, told Kate Aurthur that coming out would be a huge employment risk for an NFL player: “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.’ ”

Of course, Necessary Roughness has never been a sports show. Instead, it uses sports to make points about human psychology. On those terms, these two special episodes are rousing and heart-warming. Just don’t look to them for insight into the real-life world of sports.

*Correction, Feb. 20, 2013: This post originally misspelled Chris Kluwe's forename. It also inaccurately described Terrence "TK" King as a running back.


The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

This Scene From All The President’s Men Captures Ben Bradlee’s Genius

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.