Why Coming Out Colton is a major fumble
Coming Out Colton should have spent more time on the field.
The docuseries, streaming now on Netflix, chronicles the coming-out process of Bachelor Nation's Colton Underwood, who on April 14 revealed he is gay in a Good Morning America interview.
That moment, of course, arrived after he competed on The Bachelorette and later became the "virgin Bachelor" who dated 30 women on a Bachelor season of his own. Underwood famously jumped a fence and professed his love for Cassie Randolph, and then spiraled when their relationship ended after the show. Post-breakup, Cassie filed a restraining order against Underwood for stalking, which included a claim that he had placed a tracking device on her car. Underwood says he can discuss none of this on his new show for "legal reasons."
Given all this backstory, Netflix has been the target of substantial criticism for handing Underwood yet another platform with Coming Out Colton. But the bigger problem is that the series itself is flawed.
Throughout the six-episode season, we watch as Underwood begins connecting with other LGBTQ folks and exploring what made him feel like he needed to stay in the closet. The show starts before his GMA interview, as he comes out to family members and brings us with him as he prepares to share his truth with the world.
At the core of Underwood's attempt to reclaim his narrative is a necessary story about the modern culture of the sports world. The docuseries' central figure addresses how the homophobia in his high school locker room contributed to the shame and fear that led him to keep his sexual orientation a secret. With Coming Out Colton, Underwood had a chance to tackle what he says prevented him from living authentically — but the show completely squanders that opportunity.
During its second episode, titled "Football," Underwood speaks with gay athletes and visits his high school coach to discuss the toxicity and homophobia he experienced in the locker room. However, as with most of the series, the examinations of these complex issues remain surface-level, and left me wanting much more.
"The most toxic parts of the locker room were allowed by the coaches and the people who are supposed to be there to look out for these kids," says Underwood. "When I heard them be okay with homophobic slurs or a joke that had to do with homosexuality, it just drove me further into the closet."
If this is true for Underwood, that these events sparked the fundamental problems in his life, then they deserve much more attention than they get here.
To be fair, some of the episode is fascinating. Underwood and his friend Gus Kenworthy (a.k.a. his "gay guide," as some initial reports referred to him) meet with three gay ex-NFL players who look back on their time in the league and coming out. Michael Sam, David Kopay, and Esera Tuaolo leave enough of an impression to merit a docuseries of their own. Kopay talks about defying people's negative opinions of his sexuality to attend the funeral of the first man he loved, the way his family reacted when he shared his story publicly, and how closeted players found ways to socialize in secret. Tuaolo opens up about how Kopay's book saved his life. As a member of the same draft class, Underwood remembers Sam becoming the first openly gay football player to be drafted in the NFL and seeing the backlash he faced in real time.
"Hearing the stories from David Kopay, Esera, and going through it with Michael," he says, "the one thing that sticks out to me is, nothing's f---ing changed."
Underwood then heads to his high school to reconnect with his former football coach, Darrell Crouch. "All of the problems and everything that has led me to this point now started here," he says in a confessional. "Having someone who you view as your second father allow this toxic culture of football, whether they meant it or not, still had an impact on me."
After he details the homophobia he witnessed in the locker room, explaining that this stage in his life was when he decided to do everything he could to keep his sexual orientation a secret, Underwood's conversation with his coach basically comes to a close. It is short and anticlimactic. There is neither confrontation nor catharsis.
Crouch is understanding about how difficult it must be for a player to come out to him — that's the reality at schools in towns like Washington, Ill. — but Underwood doesn't have the language, ideas, or research to take the discussion beyond that. When he recaps the exchange to his best friend, he's worried his coach didn't get it — so we're in turn left asking what the point of the whole thing was. It's infuriating to watch Underwood shortchange himself, let alone viewers.
Underwood's brief chat with his coach ends the episode, but that's where Coming Out Colton should have started. After watching it, I was left with countless unanswered questions: How does Underwood's high school locker room experience compare to the locker room experiences of Sam, Kopay, and Tuaolo in the NFL? What advocacy work is being done to support LGBTQ athletes, and who are the people leading it? Underwood's coming-out journey is rightfully his own, but imagine a version of the docuseries in which the former professional athlete educates himself and then returns to his coach with informed suggestions on how to reduce toxicity in the locker room — to address the issue head-on, early on.
One thing the docuseries does make clear is how much young athletes rely on their teams and coaches. "I'm more nervous to talk to my coaches than I am, like, my parents," Underwood admits to Kopay and Tuaolo. He explains how his coach was like a parent to him and how the culture of football pushed him to behave as a child, including hiding his emotions.
"That is what keeps people in the closet, is because a lot of the toxic parts were allowed and deemed part of the culture," he says. If this is where it all began for Underwood, he and Netflix could have used the docuseries to cast a spotlight on a conversation we're not having nearly enough.
The inclusion of Sam is another glaring missed opportunity for the show. Underwood was in the same draft class as him, and remembers how fellow players spoke about Sam and his partner, admitting that he now regrets not speaking up in support of his friend.
"What Michael Sam did should have given other players in the league an opportunity to come out and to not be afraid," says Underwood. "Unfortunately, I didn't reach out to him, and I didn't stick up for him in the locker room. So, you know, I was part of the problem as well. I felt like I was really letting him down in that moment."
Underwood acknowledges that Sam faced further obstacles as a Black man, and this additional layer of prejudice would have been a compelling avenue to explore — had Underwood and the series creators thought to go in that direction.
Before Underwood was the fence-jumping virgin who had a post-reality-series breakdown, he was a gay kid in a locker room who just wanted to play the game well. On a platform like Netflix, he could have given children in locker rooms across the country a shot at having a much easier time coming out than he did. Instead, Coming Out Colton just feels like a big loss.
Coming Out Colton is streaming now on Netflix.
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