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Pro football player comes out on USA Network's 'Necessary Roughness'

USA Network's drama Necessary Roughness follows the life of a sports psychologist working with a professional football team in New York. It delves into the lives of the athletes, coaches and executives on the team.

Next week the series will feature a two-part story-line about one of the players on the team coming out publicly. We have an exclusive clip from the episode that takes you inside a conversation between team executives and the head coach after learning a player on their team is gay and wants to come out publicly.

We caught up with the real-life psychotherapist who was the inspiration for the series. Dr. Donna Dannenfelser currently serves as co-executive producer. She talked with us about her real-life experiences dealing with professional athletes and how she handles gay issues when they arise:

Outsports: How did you get started working with professional athletes? What was your first gig?
Dannenfesler: The beginning of my career working with professional athletes actually began in Starbucks where I read a Newsday article about how the New York Jets were doing poorly because they couldn’t focus. I had just become a hypnotherapist and I got the idea that if I could bring hypnotherapy to the players I could get them to focus really well. So, I picked up the phone and called the Head Athletic Trainer and told him about my hypnotherapy program for athletes. He was intrigued and after many discussions he decided to give it a shot, the rest is history.

Outsports: What issues in general come up most often with pro athletes? Relationships? On-field performance?
Dannenfesler: Working with pro athletes is really no different than working with the general population. We all have the same need, to be loved and respected for who we are not what we do. We are all experiencing the human condition so the general issues are the same. There are personal issues, family issues, marital issues, parenting issues, relationship issues, and work-related issues. The details of course are different especially when it comes to work related issues, but the feelings associated to those issues are the same. The biggest exception is the fact that the crises these players find themselves in can be magnified 100 fold because their problems end up in the media and that in and of itself puts on added stress. Also, pro players need quick results because perfect performance requires a clear mind and spirit and that perfect performance is expected from them every week at every game. So it’s therapy done in half the time that is normally taken for the therapeutic process to be successful. It requires a quick assessment, separating the reality from the drama, and then addressing the issue at hand.

Outsports: In working with athletes, gay or straight, how often does sexual orientation come up in conversation?
Dannenfesler: Sexual orientation does not come up with a straight player, intimacy issues are more common among them. For the gay player, sexual orientation will only come up when it begins to interfere with their performance.

Outsports: Have athletes mentioned concern that one of their teammates might be gay?
In my practice, I have never experienced an athlete concerned about the sexual orientation of any of their teammates. It is my experience that players today, their average age being between 20 and 30, are much more tolerant of alternate lifestyles. That’s why I believe it is timely for a show about a coming out pro football player. I felt compelled as a Co-Executive Producer on Necessary Roughness to address this topic and help spark dialogue, and continue to change perceptions.

Outsports: Have you ever worked with a gay athlete who was struggling with his sexual orientation?
Dannenfesler: Working with a gay athlete was never about their struggle with their sexual orientation per say. The struggle they experienced was living the lie that they felt they needed to tell in order for them to be successful in their career. By the time a player came to see me they knew whether they were gay or not, the issue was that they were feeling like a fraud with their family, friends and teammates.

Outsports: Religion plays a big role in big-time pro sports. In your experience, do athletes struggle to reconcile their religion with various issues like drugs, sex, sexual orientation, etc...?
Dannenfesler: You’re correct, religion does play a big role with many pro athletes. In my experience with athletes, religion never seemed to be a struggling issue. Religion served many as a support system and their relinquishment to a higher power helped them to take one day at a time in order to get through their struggles.

Outsports: One of our top recommendations to athletes is that they come out during the offseason. Your athlete comes out in the middle of the season. How would you help an athlete navigate the maze of doing something like this no matter what the timing?
Dannenfesler: The timing of our gay athlete coming out needed to work with the timeline of the show. We often call that “creative license” in telling a compelling story. The best time for a pro athlete or the guy next door to come out is a personal decision based on many extenuating, personal circumstances that no one should judge. I look at my role in a situation like this not as a navigator but rather a sounding board, encouraging both parties to look at the options and consequences of their decision. It is important for any high-profiled person to have a strong support network, a great publicist, and of course a therapist they are comfortable with who is skilled at talking them through the difficult times that may await them.

Outsports: In all your work with these guys, have you come to a conclusion about how an openly gay pro athlete would be received by his teammates?
Dannenfesler: There have been no active pro NFL, NBA, NHL players that have come out so I can only speculate, there will be those that accept him, those that won’t, and those who don’t care. Our episode on Necessary Roughness shows all those reactions and more. I guess what really would happen will remain to be seen as I am sure there is at least one gay man who will think about the possibility of coming out and perhaps one day soon, he will feel strong enough and safe enough to open that door, take the hits, and ultimately allow others to follow. I know I’ll be there on the sidelines cheering for him…will you?

Outsports: Have you worked with coaches? How do you generally think they would receive an openly gay athlete on their team?
Dannenfesler: Taking into account that it is 2013, I can’t imagine any coach not receiving an openly gay athlete. It’s about winning, gay or not, as long as that player can bring his team to victory it is a side issue. And as long as it doesn’t develop into a divided locker room the issue can be managed. To be honest, it is my opinion that the Coach will be the one to set the stage when that player does come out. If he demands tolerance and respect, the players will follow in kind and just like any other huge issue that has been exposed in sports, after some time it will business as usual.

Outsports: Have you worked with anyone you think would ABSOLUTELY REJECT any gay teammate?
Dannenfesler:I have never worked with anyone that I believe would absolutely reject any gay teammate.

The "coming out" episodes of Necessary Roughness air Feb. 13 & 20 at 10pm on USA Network. Until then, check out this exclusive clip: