By February 2013, Robbie Rogers’ career as a professional soccer player had reached its low point. His stints at Leeds United and lower-league Stevenage in England had been blighted by injury, and because he played so infrequently, he was failing to make an impression on the game. At the age of 25, Rogers had also reached a point in his life where he finally felt comfortable coming out to his parents, siblings, and close friends—if not to his teammates.
His professional and personal lives were like two horses pulling in opposite directions. Something had to give. “All I could focus on now was coming out and getting as far away from soccer as possible.” Having released himself from his contract with Leeds, Rogers announced his retirement in a terse note on his website headlined “The Next Chapter …” In doing so, he shook up professional soccer entirely:
For the past 25 years I have been afraid, afraid to show whom I really was because of fear. Fear that judgment and rejection would hold me back from my dreams and aspirations. … I always thought I could hide this secret. Football was my escape, my purpose, my identity. Football hid my secret, gave me more joy than I could have ever imagined. … Now is my time to step away. It’s time to discover myself away from football.
But he didn’t stay away from the game. Three months later, in May 2013, Rogers signed a contract with the LA Galaxy of Major League Soccer, becoming the first openly gay man to play in one of North America’s top five men’s professional sports. His new memoir, Coming Out to Play, chronicles this journey from childhood through college sports and his professional career—retiring, coming out, playing once more.
“The hardest part for me was visiting those childhood memories and the effects that they had on me,” Rogers told me in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he now resides. On one level, writing the book was “very therapeutic,” but on the other hand, “it put me back in that place as I was reading my journals and remembering the terror I felt before I came out.”
Born in Huntington Beach, California, Rogers’ childhood was geographically divided between his father’s house in San Pedro and his mother’s in Rolling Hills, a little farther north along the coast. But his center was always sports and specifically soccer, which he played from the age of 3 and in which he was considered a “borderline prodigy” by age 5.
The milieu in which Rogers grew up was Catholic and socially conservative, far removed from the city’s gayborhood in West Hollywood. “There are a lot of places in the city where gay people don’t live. I didn’t have any gay friends, and my parents didn’t have any gay friends. Had I had more experience and interactions with gay people, it might have made me more open-minded to myself and my own feelings,” he says. “Not having that experience, including simple conversations, probably kept me closeted for longer.”
What is clear, too, is that Rogers’ internal struggle was complicated by the aggressively heteronormative culture of college sports and professional soccer. “If you don’t hook up with a girl by the weekend, you’re gay,” Rogers recounts hearing during afternoon training a couple of weeks into his first semester at the University of Maryland. In the memoir, he notes more than one instance where he hooked up with or dated girls in order to keep friends and teammates from thinking he might be gay.
Did he not consider the women in these situations? “When I was younger and in high school, I was just thinking about myself. I was a selfish teenager who wanted to be a professional soccer player, and the idea was that if I was gay, I couldn’t be a soccer player. When I was younger, I always thought I would have to hide. I was never really thinking about other people.” What’s more, “I actually thought that maybe, if I met the right girl, I might not even be gay.”
After his college career with the Maryland Terrapins, Rogers had an unsuccessful stint in the Netherlands with SC Heerenveen, before returning to the States, spending five seasons with Columbus Crew, playing for the United States soccer team in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, and accruing 18 appearances for the senior international side. Success back home brought him to the attention of Leeds United and drew him to England.
In Coming Out to Play, it appears that the Leeds United facility was the most homophobic environment Rogers ever encountered. “Walking into the Leeds locker room was like diving into a shoe-box-sized space filled with testosterone-charged gladiators,” he writes. “There were way more homophobic remarks than I could count. My teammates would throw around the word ‘faggot’ like it was an all-purpose put-down.”
Was this the worst environment he played in? “The soccer culture is just different in England,” he told me. “It’s the main sport, and it’s hard to compare to the States,” where many of the players go to college. “Guys say things because teammates laugh, and that needs to change. My biggest issue was the changing room and the fear of not being accepted by teammates.”
Since coming out and returning to soccer, Rogers has found the atmosphere at the LA Galaxy and in the MLS “overwhelmingly supportive.” In the beginning, “I had to come to terms with being the only gay man in the locker room. Last year, it was a bit of a burden. It was really rough and I wasn’t ready,” he says. This year, though, “I loved it: being on a team as one of the guys, contributing on a field and having people respect me for what I’ve done.”
Outside of soccer, Rogers has worked with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, including serving as an honorary co-chair of their annual Respect Awards. He is also involved in a new project with Universal Studios and ABC called Men in Shorts, a sitcom inspired by his experience as an openly gay athlete, which could debut as early as fall 2015.
Rogers, however, thinks that the best thing he can do is “focus on being a footballer, since being an out gay footballer is very helpful for people.” Indeed, his public presence as a gay soccer player has been and continues to be inspirational for countless young gay men (including myself). At a time when Rogers says, FIFA “doesn’t care at all” about the struggle of LGBTQ athletes and homophobia in soccer, visibility and individual acts of courage remain the surest way to change the face of the game.
“I would never force anyone to come out,” Rogers concluded. “But the only way really to change the locker room and the clubs and the culture of soccer” is to do just that.