Robbie Rogers was in his first preseason training camp with the Galaxy when Landon Donovan organized a team-building night out. On the dry-erase board in the team’s locker room, Donovan spelled out the particulars in blue: players only; no wives, no girlfriends and, he added, no boyfriends.
If Rogers, the first openly gay male to play in a major professional team sport in the U.S., had any doubts he had been accepted, Donovan had dispelled them.
Rogers, 30, announced his retirement from professional soccer Tuesday after an 11-year professional career in England, the Netherlands and the U.S. He spent the last five seasons with the Galaxy, with whom he won an MLS Cup as well as praise from teammates, opponents and even the White House, where Barack Obama called him a trailblazer and an inspiration.
“I have no regrets. I’m excited,” Rogers said of retirement. “It’s definitely something I’m at peace with.”
Rogers grew up in Rancho Palos Verdes before going on to Mater Dei High in Santa Ana and the University of Maryland, where he won an NCAA title. He also played in the Beijing Olympics, earned 38 caps for three U.S. national teams and made two MLS All-Star teams and won an MLS Cup with the Columbus Crew.
But surgery on his left foot in December left him with nerve problems that cost him the 2017 season, leading him to begin considering retirement over the summer. Yet, it will be the way his Galaxy career began, not how it ended, that will be remembered.
Rogers was playing in England when he came out as gay in a 408-word blog post in February 2013.
“I'm a soccer player, I'm Christian, and I'm gay. Those are things that people might say wouldn't go well together,” wrote Rogers, who promptly retired and left England to return to his family in Southern California.
Bruce Arena, then the Galaxy’s coach, invited Rogers to train with the team and within weeks he and Rogers were discussing a comeback. On May 26, 2013, Rogers came out of retirement to make history, playing 13 minutes off the bench in a Galaxy victory over Seattle.
“It takes a ton of courage to take those first steps out of the closet, into the locker room and onto the pitch,” said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of the LBGT sports website Outsports.com and author of “Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports.”
“Having a gay athlete playing professionally in Major League Soccer sent a message to a lot of people,” said Arena, who eventually moved Rogers from midfield to right back, where he became one of the best defenders in the league. “Robbie’s a pioneer in what he did. And to have played a small part in that, I’m certainly proud of it.”
However, few have followed. Jason Collins played 22 games in the NBA after coming out in 2013 and Michael Sam, who came out in college, played in the preseason with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams in 2014 and in one game with Montreal of the CFL in 2015. But both players quickly disappeared from professional sports.
Now with Rogers’ retirement, there are no openly gay males in any of the five major professional sports leagues for the first time in more than four years.
“I am definitely disappointed,” Rogers said. “I was hoping that by the time I retired there would be a few at least in MLS that had come out.”
Rogers said he intends to stay involved with soccer at some level but hasn’t decided what else he’ll do beyond next month, when he and longtime partner Greg Berlanti, a Hollywood writer and producer, will marry. The two, who have an adopted 21-month-old son, are working on a project with Warner Bros. and Rogers also has a clothing line.
In other Galaxy news, the team confirmed that it has cut ties with five homegrown players — forwards Jack McBean and Jose Villarreal, midfielders Raul Mendiola and Jaime Villarreal, and defender Nathan Smith. As many as 10 others could also be let go between now and mid-December, when the team must decide which players’ contract options it will pick up.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11