While the traditional “Law & Order” mold has long been described as ‘ripped from the headlines,' in his tenure as showrunner of “Law & Order: SVU,” Warren Leight and his staff of writers continually seem to be just ahead of the curve when it comes to breaking news.
Season 13’s “Personal Fouls,” about a basketball coach abusing his players, aired just as the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal was coming to light, while this season’s “Jersey Breakdown” episode about corruption in the Garden State hit the air mere days after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was called on the carpet for some ethically questionable maneuvers.
Now, comes Wednesday’s installment, which features a narrative about an incident involving college football players that seems to echo a real-life storyline a bit too closely for it to be mere coincidence; it appears more like Leight and his staff has some sort of pre-cognitive radar in effect here.
“Sometimes we feel like we write our story, then that exact story breaks in the media. This is absolutely one of those times.” explains Leight.
Leight is referring to a February 9, 2014 interview in which college defenseman Michael Sam announced that he’s gay, becoming one of the first publicly out college football players. Since that declaration, Sam has entered the NFL draft and if signed by a team in May, will become the first openly gay NFL player.
Speculation has run rampant about how Sam will actually be received within the confines of the National Football League.
With regard to this week’s ‘SVU,’ Leight goes on to say, “That’s the basic question that we’re asking, ‘Is college football ready for an openly gay player; is the NFL ready for an openly gay player?’ We started out just wanting to delve into the topic of the bullying and hazing that takes place at both the college and the pro level, and then we moved into wanting to discuss the homophobic culture of football, and many team sports really, and the effect that that lack of tolerance can have on players within that team structure.”
Once again it’s not only the power of the subject matter here but the incredible timeliness of the questions posed by the exploration of this topic that make the episode, entitled “Gridiron Soldier” so apropos.
“In the episode, we show how in the football setting, there’s often this pressure from other players for new recruits to prove that they’re a ‘real man,’” reveals Leight. He goes on to break down the episode a bit more by saying, “We start our story with a high school senior who comes to New York for a recruiting weekend, which is another sort of corrupt part of the college football world in that during these trips the best players in the country are flown in and lavished with what are more or less bribes and/or sexual favors to get them to appreciate the school and sign on to attend. But, this kid, who the team really, really needs, isn’t signing, so the players decide to prank him and that prank begins a tailspin for him that leads to an examination of the whole campus football team.”
Talking about the uncanny timing of the episode, Leight disclosed that Sam actually came out the week after the episode was shot. “This thing was literally being edited before Michael Sam even made his announcement. It was just one of those odd, but ultimately amazing, coincidences.”
This episode, shown at any time, would raise critical questions about shared attitudes and awareness with regard to football and the gay community, that it comes on the heels of what could be a societal altering pronouncement makes it that much more significant while still remaining focused on the central question being asked – is the NFL really ready, or, will this make them ready to accept openly gay players without question?
Leight believes that the shift in theme for this episode, moving away for just a moment from a story about female or child victims, lends itself to welcoming new viewers as well, saying, “We continually deal with some pretty tough issues on our show and this one does fall under that heading, but I‘d really like to encourage the women who watch regularly, and who we are most grateful to have as fans, to get their husbands or boyfriends to watch with them. I really think that men with be alright with the arena that we’re working in this week and my hope is that they'll really take something away from this episode."
If wanting to stay slightly ahead of what’s about to trend is Leight’s goal, and he makes no secret that it is, saying, “Yeah, I want to be 15 minutes ahead of the zeitgeist. That seems a good place to be,” then it’s obvious that for some reason, whatever reason that may be -- whether it’s a cosmic trade-off of some sort, a load of good karma banked years ago, or something so utterly unbelievable that it cannot even be fathomed – it really doesn’t matter how this ability has been acquired, as long it’s being used in a satisfactory manner, and clearly it is.
“Law and Order: SVU” airs Wednesday nights at 9e/8c on NBC.
This week’s hashtag = #PanicDefense