NEW YORK — Los Angeles Galaxy soccer star Robbie Rogers wants some company, now that he’s the last man standing as an openly gay athlete in a U.S. professional league.
Jason Collins recently retired from the NBA, and Michael Sam is without an NFL team. That leaves Rogers, the first openly gay player in Major League Soccer, hoping for a bigger fraternity.
“To be honest, I thought when I came out and Jason and Michael, I thought there’d be a chain reaction,” Rogers said in a recent phone interview with The Associated Press. “It’s been a lot slower. I guess that just reminds me how big a problem it is in sports culture with homophobia. They don’t feel comfortable.”
Rogers chronicles his struggles with faith and family acceptance in the memoir “Coming Out To Play,” released Tuesday by Penguin Books. It’s a collaborative effort with Eric Marcus, who co-wrote Greg Louganis’ book, and recollections from his mother and oldest sister. Rogers discusses growing up in Southern California, playing soccer in the U.S. and European leagues and dealing with his sexuality.
On Sunday, he helped the Galaxy defeat Seattle 1-0 in the opener of the Western Conference finals. He’s been a key defender this season after briefly retiring from the sport last year at age 25.
Rogers recently signed a contract extension, and Galaxy players have embraced him, but locker rooms notoriously weren’t a safe environment to talk about sexuality – except for teammates bragging about their heterosexual conquests.
“Like every locker room I’d been in for years now, ‘fag’ and ‘gay’ were tossed around like an all-purpose putdown,” he wrote. “It cut deeper into an already raw wound.”
So Rogers stifled his feelings, occasionally dating women to please his questioning teammates and family. After playing five seasons for the Columbus Crew in MLS, with stints in the Netherlands and England, he realized his happiness required living an authentic life. So he simultaneously came out and retired in a blog post in February 2013, thinking he couldn’t be an openly gay man and a pro soccer player.
But an outpouring of support, conversations with Los Angeles star Landon Donovan and an invitation from Galaxy coach Bruce Arena to train with the team caused a change of heart.
Now the Galaxy are vying for a spot in the MLS final, Rogers is in a steady relationship and hoping more pro sports leagues provide education about diversity. That way, a teammate might think twice before throwing around gay slurs in the locker room.
There are still no openly gay players in the NFL, NHL or Major League Baseball.
“There are a number of gay men playing professional sports, just not out,” Rogers told the AP. “In the end, it’s really about guys coming out and changing the atmosphere by being in it. You definitely need to create the environment first where guys feel comfortable.”
Baseball hired Billy Bean, who came out after his MLB career, to talk to all 30 teams about inclusion. Rogers says teams need to educate players on “racism, sexism and homophobia. The leagues should have a person there guys can go talk to, honestly. Talk about mental health or depression or guys wanting to come out.”
Rogers was a prodigy growing up, playing organized soccer at 4. As a teenager, he competed on the Orange County Blue Star. Jurgen Klinsmann, now the coach of the U.S. national team, would occasionally stop by. His favorite players were European stars Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane. After helping Maryland win the 2005 NCAA title as a freshman, Rogers turned pro and went to the Netherlands. Playing for Leeds United in 2012, he sustained a concussion 12 minutes into his debut, colliding with an opponent while going for a header. An ankle injury intensified his depression and isolation, and he eventually returned to the U.S.
Rogers heard negative comments about gay people at home, at church, in school and in the locker room. He considers his family “socially and politically conservative and very Catholic.” Rogers describes his family as loving and close, yet there were harsh comments from his father about not being a “fairy” and negative comments from his mother about gay celebrities and gay marriage.
“Growing up, I heard and saw plenty that made me think that being gay was bad, defective and sinful,” Rogers wrote.
He came out to his family, despite his fear of rejection, before posting his blog. Now he says his parents, three sisters and younger brother are his biggest supporters.
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