Robbie Rogers coming out, soccer's reaction, mark steps forward
Last Monday, during an MLS preseason media day, I conducted a rapid-fire survey with 15 players from teams around the league. The players were granted anonymity in return for their honesty, and I asked each one 25 hot-button questions. One of them was this: Would a gay player be accepted in your team's locker room?
Fourteen players said yes. One said no.
I was thinking about that Friday when Robbie Rogers -- a 25-year-old winger who'd played for the U.S. national team, the Columbus Crew and Leeds United, among others -- announced in a powerful blog post that he was gay and had decided to step away from his soccer career.
First things first: Rogers' blog post is remarkably honest, brave and well-written. It's hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for him to make this public considering the fear that he admits to feeling for years now. As much as times have changed in society, coming out publicly is still extremely rare in the world of team sports, especially for current players. In soccer, former Columbus player David Testo did in 2011, but sadly he has yet to play for a pro team since. Last year, Megan Rapinoe became the first U.S. women's soccer star to come out, and she has received important community awards for doing so.
The coolest thing to see Friday was the outpouring of support for Rogers on Twitter from the U.S. soccer community -- from fans to media to a Who's Who of players including Carlos Bocanegra, Omar González, Sacha Kljestan, Stuart Holden, Ali Krieger, Oguchi Onyewu, Lori Lindsey, Heath Pearce, Benny Feilhaber and Kei Kamara.
I happen to think MLS, probably more than other U.S. men's sports leagues, is ready for an openly gay player. The survey response I got above says so. So do the actions of the league, which suspended two players for a total of six games last season for using homophobic slurs on the field. I also happen to think the popular support for an out player would extend to endorsement opportunities. As a friend in the business texted me Friday, "[Rogers'] commercial value just skyrocketed. I hope he comes back to the game."
From a pure soccer perspective, Rogers has a good résumé. He scored the late equalizer against Mexico in Jurgen Klinsmann's debut as U.S. manager in 2011. He was a regular on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team and Columbus' 2008 MLS Cup winner and one of the final cuts from the 2010 U.S. World Cup team. His free transfer to Leeds United had been plagued by injuries, but at 25 Rogers could still be a very useful MLS player. Think about it: the guy started against World Cup champion Spain less than two years ago.
But that's only if he wants to come back and play again. Rogers' MLS rights had recently been traded to Chicago from Columbus, a situation he expressed his dissatisfaction with on Twitter. (He has a point, too. If he left MLS as a free agent, why should his rights still be held by anyone?) While Rogers did not explicitly state that he was retiring for good in his blog post -- he used the term "step away" -- one of his friends told me he does not think Rogers will play again.
That's his call, obviously, and just this week Rogers started a job at the U.K. edition of Men's Health magazine. I wish him the best of luck, just as I would if he decided to return to professional soccer someday. My other hope is that there will come a time when nobody, pro athletes included, will feel their dreams will be threatened if they decide to come out. That's one of the messages from Rogers' eloquent blog post -- a fear that will only end when we as a society make it so.