Image via Rsvlts.com.
Image via Rsvlts.com.
On Friday, former U.S. Men’s National Team winger Robbie Rogers announced he was done playing soccer for the time being. He also came out as a gay man, becoming the second American professional soccer player to do so in recent memory. The second part will be a bigger story than the first, and not just because the 25-year-old was a marginal player on the USMNT during his stint with the team, but for the courage Rogers showed by asserting himself in a culture and a sport that's still steeped in casual homophobia. It's not at all clear what comes next, for Rogers or for soccer.
That it took this long for Rogers to feel this secure is not good, but not surprising, either. The former Columbus Crew and Leeds United midfielder has played for some fine teams, but felt—for reasons he got at in a blog post on Friday—that he would find himself ridiculed and otherwise on the outside if he were to have expressed his true self. “For the past 25 year I have been afraid, afraid to show whom I really was because of fear," he wrote. "Fear that judgment and rejection would hold me back from my dreams and aspirations. Fear that my loved ones would be farthest from me if they knew my secret. Fear that my secret would get in the way of my dreams."
On Friday, Rogers decided one burden was heavier than the other. He may play soccer again, or he may not.
Rogers was picked for the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team in 2007 and was part of the 18-man squad that went to the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, but really grew into his talent while playing for the Columbus Crew in Major League Soccer. His MLS showing in 2010 caught the eye of then-coach Bob Bradley, who tabbed Rogers from the 30-man World Cup squad to go South Africa. Rogers didn’t make the final 23-man roster, but his career was a long way from over: his soccer evolution took him to England, where he seemed a solid fit and a good bet to get better.
And yet, mostly because of injuries, he didn't. Rogers signed for Leeds in the English Championship after a two-week trial before Christmas 2011, struggled with injuries—including a serious concussion—and didn't receive much playing time during his brief periods of tenuous health. He was eventually released from his contract in January after an unsuccessful loan spell with League One side Stevenage F.C. He disappeared, in the way that out-of-work athletes do relative to their spotlit peers, and Rogers remained in anonymity until his combination coming-out/retirement message on Friday.
“Now is my time to step away. It’s time to discover myself away from football. It’s 1 A.M. in London as I write this and I could not be happier with my decision,” he wrote. “Life is so full of amazing things. I realized I could only truly enjoy my life once I was honest. Honesty is a bitch but makes life so simple and clear. My secret is gone, I am a free man, I can move on and live my life as my creator intended.”
The proper response to this is "Good for Robbie Rogers," although that's clearly not the only response out there. Rogers should have never been forced to hold his fears inside; obviously, he should not have felt such horror at himself for so long; clearly, it would be good if stepping out as he has will make it that much easier for the next athlete, male or female, who's similarly moved to speak out, and come out. His struggle is unique to him, but it's not exactly unique, in soccer or any other pro sport or any other corner of the culture. It would be good if Rogers' coming out makes it easier for the next gay player, and the one after that.
That day may be coming, and hopefully will arrive soon enough for Rogers to see it, and to be credited as part of that change.Former U.S. men’s national team midfielder Eddie Pope tweeted as much to Rogers,on Friday. “Brave men like you will make it so that one day there's no need for an announcement. That day can't arrive soon enough. #Support." A wide array of Rogers' former teammates—Stu Holden and Ross McCormack and Benny Fielhaber and Taylor Twellman and Jay DeMerit and others—echoed those sentiments. This is all very good, but it isn't the end.
As Goal.com's Seth Vertelny points out, Rogers doesn't really owe any of us anything. He doesn't owe soccer fans or other gay men or women any favors—it would be nice to see him recover from his injuries and play, if he wants to. It would be nice to see him succeed in some other career; he mentioned on Twitter that he would do some work for the UK edition of Men's Health magazine. He may become an activist or a public advocate for his cause, or he may not. David Testo, the other notable U.S. soccer player to come out recently, has talked about the feeling of having to lead by example.
“Most gay people don’t get to this part of their life ever, to accepting themselves and acting on it and enjoying their life,” Testo told SBNation's Leander Schaerlaeckens. “I feel that people that have gotten to that place in their life, it’s almost their duty to help those who aren’t there. I wanted to reach people who needed that inspiration, who needed to hear it gets better and it’s okay."
It’s hard not to compare Rogers and Testo. Both were excellent college players, both had their careers cut to shreds by nagging injuries and both carried heavy secrets with them during their time on the field. Both received some harsh anti-gay teaching in their youths, and both received words of support from present and former teammates. And both, like the few European soccer players who had come out previously, felt obliged to retire after announcing that they were gay.
But what's to gain, really, by comparing or contrasting these two men, who have little in common but uncommon talent for the game and an all-too-common struggle? Both Testo and Rogers will go their own ways, as they should and must. Who else could or should we ever expect Robbie Rogers to be, after all, but himself?