For Robbie Rogers, it’s business as usual after coming out as gay
If Robbie Rogers needed a reminder that fame can be fleeting, he got it Monday morning when he boarded a US Airways flight to North Carolina.
A few hours earlier, by playing the final 13 minutes of a Major League Soccer match for the Galaxy, he had become the first openly gay male athlete to compete in one of the country’s five major professional leagues. His face was splashed across the front page of dozens of sports sections on two continents and ESPN was running highlights of his appearance in what seemed like an endless loop.
But at the airport he was just another passenger, wedged uncomfortably into a middle seat for a 4-hour trip across the country.
“I slept the whole way,” Rogers says.
And you couldn’t blame him if he woke wondering whether the whirlwind that had engulfed him over the last 31/2 months had all been a dream.
A once-promising midfielder with the U.S. national team, Rogers’ career was in a yearlong free fall that reached bottom last winter when he was released by Leeds United, a second-tier English club. Depressed, confused and uncertain about his future, Rogers sat behind a computer in his London apartment and wrote a powerful 408-word blog post announcing he is gay and, because of that, would “step away” from soccer.
Dozens of players from around the world took to social media to laud Rogers’ courage in coming out and urge him not to retire. Sigi Schmid, one of the most accomplished managers in MLS, sent a text message. “If you want to play, you should play,” he wrote. “You’ll be accepted.”
But it wasn’t until April when Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena invited Rogers to train with his team that it became clear that Rogers still wanted to play. Whatever fear he had about returning to the hyper-masculine world of professional sport as a gay man wasn’t as strong as his love for the game.
There was a period after leaving England “where I thought, ‘OK, I’m done with this.’ I’m going to really miss it but I felt like it was going to be really difficult to come back,” Rogers says. “But I just really missed it too much.”
Those words inspire both joy and jealousy in Billy Bean, a real estate agent with Keller Williams in Beverly Hills. Bean was once a major league baseball player, one good enough to play in 174 games with the San Diego Padres over two seasons, but one so burdened by the need to keep his sexual orientation secret that he retired in 1995 at age 31.
Now, in the span of four weeks, NBA center Jason Collins became the first active player in a major male team sport to come out publicly as gay and Rogers has become the first to compete in a game.
“It was truly a different world in the ‘90s than it is now,” says Bean, who sometimes wonders whether he could have saved his career by going public or at least confiding in a teammate. “Robbie is young and he has this huge support network around him. So he feels empowered and this is exactly the environment that it’s going to take for someone in one of the major sports to come forward as well.
“We have gotten past a huge hurdle.”
That Rogers cleared this hurdle without controversy came as no surprise to journalist Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of the gay sports website Outsports.com. Zeigler has long insisted U.S. professional teams and their fans would tolerate — if not warmly welcome — openly gay athletes.
When Collins and now Rogers came out, Zeigler said, the response was acceptance and a quick return to business as usual.
“We can debate about marriage and the Boy Scouts and all these other things. But what America agrees almost unanimously on is people should be able to play the sport they love and do their job. And that’s all we’re talking about,” says Zeigler. “So if somebody’s surprised that Robbie Rogers might be accepted by the fans and team management and his teammates, they had their head in the sand the last five years.”
True to Zeigler’s predictions, Rogers said he received nothing but support from the Galaxy. And when he finally stepped onto the field in last Sunday’s game, the reception he received from the fans was warm but hardly overwhelming. As historic moments go, it was hardly memorable.
Still, Rogers was so nervous driving to the stadium that afternoon he called his sister Alicia to talk about his dog Jeffrey, a dachshund-miniature poodle mix he brought with him from London. “Just to get my mind off things,” he said.
Rogers said he had heard teammates casually pepper their speech with anti-gay slurs for so long, he had reason to be apprehensive — as do others, whose sexual orientation remains a secret.
“There’s a reason that athletes feel that way. It’s not just something that you build up in your mind,” he says. “Some of the things I heard in the locker room, you would be speechless. I’ve heard it all my life.”
The locker room wasn’t the first or even the biggest challenge Rogers faced in coming out publicly, though. Telling his family last fall, he said, was much more stressful.
But that, too, was uneventful.
“They just pretty much said, ‘We don’t care. We love you,’” he remembers. “And that was pretty much the standard message from my whole family and friends. We just don’t really care.”
The support convinced Rogers that if he did play pro soccer again it would have to be in Southern California, where he could be near his family. But first the Galaxy had to wrest him away from Chicago, which owned his MLS rights. And that proved costly, with the Fire insisting on versatile fan favorite Mike Magee, a Chicago native who led the Galaxy in scoring this season.
Though the trade has returned the Galaxy to the spotlight six months after David Beckham left, Arena insists the deal was made for soccer reasons and nothing else.
“We’re not a nonprofit organization,” he said. “Everything we do we think, in either the short term or the long term, it’s going to benefit our team. So it’s not like there was a gun to my head that I had to do this.”
Rogers would like nothing better than for the focus surrounding him to be about soccer. After all, he never planned to be a gay-rights activist and doesn’t appear particularly comfortable in the role. But he does feel comfortable again on the soccer field. And now that the stress of hiding who he is has been lifted, he’s hoping, at 26, he’ll regain the form that once had him competing for a spot on the U.S. World Cup team.
“You perform the best when you’re happiest. It just makes sense,” he says. “Whenever in the past I seemed like I was most at peace or playing best it was definitely when I was happy off the field.
“This is all new to me. It’s a learning experience. But I’m hoping that I can get fit and get back my game sharpness and see where it goes from there.”
Zeigler is looking forward to see where it goes too — partly because he knows how far things have come for gay athletes. Now that Rogers has stepped out of the closet and onto the playing field, he says, there’s no turning back.
“It’s significant because whether it was soccer or the NFL, people said this wasn’t possible. And it happened,” Zeigler says. “People who said you cannot be accepted in a professional sports locker room can no longer say that.
“It is no longer impossible. So the kids who are gay and looking at this, they now know that no matter what anybody else says, it is possible.”
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