When soccer club LA Galaxy announced it had signed Robbie Rogers earlier this month, the sporting world was abuzz. And for good reason. Only a few years ago, signing an openly gay sport star would have been unthinkable.
Yet on May 26, Rogers, who came out earlier this year, came off the bench and took to the pitch in a game against Sounders FC. In doing so, he became the first openly gay male player to participate in top flight soccer — and, in fact, the first* openly gay male player to participate after coming out in any major league sport in America.
What’s more, he received a standing ovation from a sizable proportion of the crowd. You can see the moment Rogers took to the field around the 7 minute mark in the video below, but there is talk about him throughout:
For a better look at the crowd’s reaction, here is a side-on view:
As mentioned above Rogers, a California native, came out in February of this year after finishing his time under contract (though for the majority not playing) at the UK Championship club Leeds United.
He did so with the intent of retiring from soccer, but wanted to make a statement. He wrote on his personal blog:
“I’m a soccer player, I’m Christian, and I’m gay. Those are things that people might say wouldn’t go well together. But my family raised me to be an individual and to stand up for what I believe in.”
In subsequent interviews, he said that he thought it was “impossible” to play on after revealing his sexuality but didn’t rule out a return in the future:
Even though not a part of the game at the time, Rogers received a great deal of praise for coming out. He technically isn’t the first player to do so while still in the game, but he is among only a brave few.
Anton Hysen, an English-born Swedish soccer player, plays in Sweden’s third-division. He came out to Swedish soccer magazine Offside in March 2011. While Hysen’s coming out was and still is remarkable, because Hysen is not yet playing for any of the big clubs, it did not have quite the impact many were hoping for.
The only other player to ever come out while actively playing in the game is Justin Fashanu, and that is not a happy story.
England’s Fashanu was a player remarkable as much for his early promise as for the fact that he broke racial barriers to be the UK’s first player of color to be signed for £1 million when he transferred to Nottingham Forest in August 1981. Fashanu’s same-sex relationships, however, begged too much tolerance and, after he was barred from training with Nottingham Forest and subsequent transfers shuffled the now under-performing Fashanu into the lower ranks, his fall from sporting stardom was swift and assured.
Fashanu publicly came out in 1990, and the backlash from the sporting world, and from fans and members of his own family, was fierce. Fashanu committed suicide in 1998, dogged by criminal charges of sexual assault that he had always denied.
Since then, the prevailing notion has been that no soccer player could hope to come out without risking a backlash from fans, teammates, and without costing soccer clubs lucrative sponsorship deals. In fact, this has been the fear that has kept gay players from revealing their sexuality in all major league sports. However, pressure has been mounting. If just one player were to stand up and disclose their sexuality, the argument went, it would break the taboo and more sports stars would follow.
That Rogers was to be the first openly gay player active in his sport was not immediately obvious but, just a few months after coming out, something happened to give Rogers’ cause to reconsider walking away from the game.
Rogers, in an interview with USA Today, reveals that after meeting 500 kids at the Nike’s Be True LGBT Youth Forum in Portland in April, he had come to view his coming out in a different light:
“I seriously felt like a coward. These kids are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I’m 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?”
A time training with LA Galaxy was swiftly arranged. Something was afoot. Then, in a flash of action likely designed to give the media only a few days to speculate, it was announced Rogers would sign for LA Galaxy and would soon be playing.
So what does Rogers think after having taken to the pitch? Here he is reflecting on how the game went (they won 4-0) and how he feels now that he has helped chip away at one of sport’s biggest taboos:
MLB superstar Justin Collins came out in March and was greeted positively. He even got a name check from the President and Michelle Obama.
It is speculation to wonder if Collins’ experience may have fed into Rogers’ decision to return to the game, but certainly Collins’ positive reception cannot have hurt.
It’s also important to note that Robbie Rogers’ story really couldn’t be more different from what Justin Fashanu experienced just a few decades ago. Where Fashanu was hounded, Rogers has now been embraced.
While it is true that Rogers may yet receive a hostile reception from some quarters and in some games, we can surely say that when Robbie Rogers took to the pitch on May 26, history was made and a firm message cut into the turf that you can be openly gay and still play top flight sport.
Hopefully Rogers’ example will be enough to show other gay sports stars that maintaining a sporting career after coming out is not only possible, it may even allow you to thrive both professionally and personally.
*Trivia: Technically, Justin Collins was the first male player to come out in major league sport but he came out after his season had finished and therefore has yet to play a game as an openly gay sports star, whereas Rogers now has.
Image credit: YouTube Video, no infringement intended.