On May 26, 2013, Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay male to compete within a major North American professional sports league, stepping onto the pitch in the 77th minute of his club’s match against the Seattle Sounders and demonstrating, even if for only several minutes, a liberation he had never before experienced as a professional footballer. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life, especially knowing that my family was there to share it with me and were cheering along with everyone else for the real Robbie Rogers,” he writes in his memoir, Coming Out to Play. “That made me happier than when I won the MLS Cup.”
Despite the personal significance of his debut that day, Rogers emphasizes that his performance on the pitch had been normal. “I felt like I did fine,” he writes. “I touched the ball a few times, made a tackle and completed some passes.” The casualness and the matter-of-fact manner by which Rogers elaborates upon his debut are rather significant. Rogers sought not necessarily to return to the pitch as the first openly gay professional male footballer but, rather, as the same young, innocent Robbie who had long ago played the game for its own sake, without understanding his own sexuality or considering how it would affect his livelihood. Indeed, writes Kevin O’Keeffe in The Atlantic, “the power of Rogers’ story lies in exactly how mundane it is. It’s the kind of story many people have heard before.”
The ordinariness of Rogers’ narrative by no means undermines its significance, however. The pain it evokes is undoubtedly felt most by countless closeted athletes worldwide, most of whom unfortunately never benefit from the support afforded to Rogers. A recent international study on homophobia in sports found that 84 and 82 percent of gay and lesbian athletes within the United States experienced homophobia, some in the form of physical assault. Indeed, 78 percent of all respondents indicated their belief that youth sports teams are unsafe for gay and lesbian athletes. Some of these athletes may easily relate to Rogers—who was raised within a socially and politically conservative Catholic family, experienced the heteronormativity and overt masculinity characteristic of the locker room and, therefore, kept private his sexuality, at times feigning relationships with members of the opposite sex in order to appease the curiosity of his peers. They may be inspired by his bravery and similarly accept their sexuality as inherent aspects of their respective identities.
Rogers’ narrative, however, is less significant as an exploration of his own sexuality than as an exploration of the very institutions, in this case within professional sports, whose cultures suppress the expression of such sexuality in the first place. Football, for instance, may not be particularly supportive of Rogers’ sexuality, hence why he remains the only openly gay professional male footballer. Indeed, in a commentary published in USA Today, Rogers writes that, “for however many guys who are out there hiding, it’s fear that’s keeping them from being themselves.”
Given how high the stakes are in professional sports, it’s not enough for closeted players to see what it’s been like for me or to hear comments of LGBT from high-profile players, from coaches, owners and even the heads of national soccer league officials from around the world. They’re going to need to hear and see a lot more from FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, before the atmosphere changes enough for more gay soccer players to stop hiding and simply be themselves.
Rogers denounces, for instance, FIFA’s holding the next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar, two countries whose laws discriminate against, and suppress the expression of sexuality amongst, LGBTQ+ individuals. “If actions speak louder than words,” writes Rogers, “then the message FIFA sends to gay athletes is painfully clear.” Fortunately, Rogers was afforded some, albeit minor, institutional support. In his memoir, he explains that Bruce Arena, the manager of the Los Angeles Galaxy, extended to him an offer to train with the club and that Landon Donovan, then a forward and a winger for the club, and other teammates welcomed him with open arms. As a result, he has thrived during his three seasons with the Galaxy. In 2014, he became the firstly openly gay male athlete to win a professional title in the United States after the Galaxy won the Major League Soccer Cup. “It’s been mostly the support system around me,” Rogers said of his recent success. “The Galaxy has been absolutely amazing with me.”
Other gay professional athletes have not necessarily been afforded similar support and, therefore, have achieved less success than Rogers. In April 2013, Jason Collins, then a center for the Washington Wizards, became the first openly gay professional men’s basketball player. He became a free agent after his announcement, despite his status as a first-round draft pick with thirteen years of professional basketball experience. No team invited Collins to its training camps, despite his insistence that he intended to pursue another contract. In February 2014, Collins signed a contract with the Brooklyn Nets, whose coach, Jason Kidd, was a former teammate of his. Nonetheless, he played limited minutes and eventually retired from the National Basketball Association. Similarly, in August 2014, Michael Sam, then a defensive end and the first openly gay National Football League draftee, was released by the team which had recently drafted him, the St. Louis Rams. Two months later, the Dallas Cowboys released him from their practice squad. Eventually, Sam signed a contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, playing one game before deciding to resign from the team. Adam Schefter of ESPN explained that, though he had been one of 12 players who had averaged 2.5 or more sacks during the preseason, Sam had been the only one not signed to a 53-man roster or a practice squad. Mike Freeman writes, in Bleacher Report, that:
In interviews with a number of team officials, I can’t find one who will actually say to me, “He can’t play.” They all point to the media and say he’s too big a distraction. One general manager told me, “Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention.”
Last year, David Denson, a first baseman and an outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers, became the first openly gay professional baseball player. Considering the experiences of Collins, Rogers and Sam, explains Kevin Baxter in the Los Angeles Times, “whether minor leaguer David Denson succeeds or fails as affiliated baseball’s first openly gay player could be determined less by Denson’s talents and more by the attitudes of those around him.”
Rogers’ narrative is, indeed, an important exploration of his own sexuality. However—just as he so critically observes that the institutional culture of professional football, and its suppression of his sexual expression, affected his livelihood more than his sexuality itself—so too ought others to better understand the role of professional sports institutions in propagating classism, homophobia, racism and sexism. Such an understanding would ensure less of an emphasis upon the roles of professional athletes in becoming, for example, the first openly gay professional male footballer and more of an emphasis upon the roles of professional sports institutions in preventing greater ethnic, gender, racial, sexual and socioeconomic diversity.
It is by means of such an understanding that professional sports institutions, whether they be FIFA, the NBA or the NFL, may be held more accountable, so that Rogers may one day compete on the pitch with another openly gay professional male footballer, not that it would matter to him anyway.