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.
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.