Neil W. Blackmon
Real Madrid and Manchester United played an incredible soccer match this past week, and certainly plenty of pubs were crowded to view that masterpiece and plenty of articles were written breaking it down, but the reality is that stateside, last week was a slow news week for soccer. The United States was a week removed from losing its first final round World Cup qualifier, MLS was still in the early stages of its preseason and most of the commentary, for better or worse, was focused on a player who, at least currently, is not playing in Landon Donovan and on the merits of a very popular, excitable college basketball (mostly) announcer named Gus Johnson, who had the privilege of calling the United-Real tilt for Fox Soccer Network. The match was the first of a grand experiment that will be five years in the making—Can FOX make an American announcer the voice of the world’s greatest tournament? (In case you’ve been hiding under rock, Johnson will headline FOX’s broadcasting coverage of the 2018 World Cup in Russia). It speaks to the slow nature of a news cycle when the on-job-training of an American announcer is the lead story in the soccer universe, both in print and on the soccer podcasts and satellite radio talk shows—but such was the case last week. At least, such was the case until Friday afternoon.
Friday afternoon, Robbie Rogers, a US international, an MLS Cup winning player with the Columbus Crew and member of the extremely watchable and likeable 2008 US Men’s Olympic Soccer team in Beijing announced on his personal website that he was gay, and that he was stepping away from the game of soccer to see what life holds now that his sexual preference is out in the open. Rogers’ full blog entry can be read here.Rogers’ announcement, to say what can only seem understated, transformed a slow American soccer news cycle into something entirely different—a very rare, very real human story related to the game of soccer that could, and God-willing, will, have tremendous implications.
Rogers’ blog entry itself was brave, succinct and emotionally-stirring. Citing twenty-five years of “fear” and a life lived “feeling different” from his peers, Rogers’ asked simply how one was to explain to their loved ones after 25 years that they are gay. Not completely knowing the answer, Rogers then stated it was time to explore life away from football, to figure out what that life held and to be able, in his words, to “fully enjoy life” now that he had been honest. Honest with himself, honest with his peers, honest with his loved ones. Such bravery and honesty is rare in the world, let alone in the hyper-masculine, machismo culture of professional sports. What Rogers did, in laying bare of his feelings and life, should be applauded, not simply, as he writes, as honest, but as courageous. Rogers’ decision to step away from the game, permanent or no, should be secondary. The courage it took to make the announcement, and the possibility that it opens the door to future announcements, and to a player who decides to play without fear, well- that’s what makes Rogers’ announcement a story that is way past necessary.
Why? Let’s use what is annually the largest sports news cycle for perspective. The Super Bowl was a couple of weeks ago, if you haven’t heard, and with my hometown Falcons vanquished a week prior, I found myself, as tends to be the case, trying to decide who to cheer for at the Super Bowl parties that have long been a part of my life as a young, and now not as young, adult. Often times the choice is easy, a player appeals to me or a team plays a style of football that is easy to like and a decision can be quickly made. This year, however, choosing was more difficult. On the one hand, the San Francisco 49ers, with their enviable club history, innovative pistol offense and young, buck-the-handicappers quarterback had just defeated my hometown team. My team lost to the team that won the whole thing- that’s always a strong draw.
On the other hand, the Baltimore Ravens, led by one of the game’s all-time greats, Ray Lewis, playing his final game. A sentimental draw, despite the personal ups-and-downs of Lewis’ life so well-documented by the media. Given these competing storylines, finding a Super Bowl Sunday allegiance this year was going to be a tough call.
Then San Francisco 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver went and made it easy for me. In an unprovoked moment at a media session, Culliver stated that “gay players would not be welcome in the locker room” with the 49ers, and had no place in the NFL. This type of unprovoked, vitriolic hatemongering made picking an allegiance easy. I cheered for the Ravens, was pleased they won, and was, perhaps, even more pleased that Chris Culliver had a lousy day at work in the Super Bowl.
In the aftermath of Culliver’s remarks, there was a somewhat flippant dialogue about the future, and possibilities for openly gay athletes in American sport. Did Culliver, with his heart filled with hate, simply express what was believed widely and silently by the majority of athletes in America’s premier professional sports leagues? Is it that type of sentiment that kept gay athletes in the closet? Should they remain in the closet, given the risk of backlash from attitudes of intolerance held by “men” like Culliver?
These questions and others were asked, briefly, but, as usually happens when we as a culture begin to talk about things that make us uncomfortable, the discussions were short-lived. Most journalists, including the highest-profile folks on ESPN, CBS and FOX, took what is becoming the traditional way out in these discussions. They condemned the remarks of Culliver, the player who made them, stated the view was wrong and outrageous, and hoped against hope that as a culture, we did not largely share those sentiments. Racial discussions have been whitewashed culturally in the United States, particularly in regard to sport, for decades. The new frontier in this whitewashing is the gay rights movement, and the Culliver incident was another sad reminder of how far we have to go.
Out of the whole mess, however, there was one very fascinating question, raised in a cursory remark by an ESPN PTI host and a print journalist or two: what would happen if a high-profile athlete did come out of the closet? What would we, as a sporting culture, do then? Enter Robbie Rogers.
Rogers is certainly not, in the American sporting pantheon, a household name. But in soccer circles he’s a good name, a flawed but immensely talented young player. Rogers was good enough to contribute regularly to a MLS champion, the Columbus Crew in 2008. He was good enough to walk with his teammates into Olympic Stadium in Beijing in 2008 and represent his country (quite well, we’d add) in an Olympic games. He was good enough as a winger and width and pace option to make the final cut stage of Bob Bradley’s group-winning 2010 World Cup team. And he was, of late, good enough to get a few looks with Championship side Leeds United in England. At 25, Rogers still has football in him, should he choose to play again. And, as Grant Wahl pointed out, despite battling injuries, Rogers was still good enough to start for country against Spain just twenty months ago. There’s more soccer in him, if that’s what he decides to do. And that’s one of the reasons this announcement had, has, a “where were you when?” feel.
Here was a professional athlete, valued still in his sport by managers at the highest level, admitting openly that he is a homosexual. Should Rogers return to MLS, he has the potential to be a Jackie Robinson-like figure for openly gay athletes, playing a game he loves while feeling comfortable and happy with life off the field. That’s an immense thing, a truly historic opportunity, and one that has presented itself just weeks after Culliver’s vitriol at the Super Bowl.
But what if Rogers does stay away? Does that lessen the announcement, or its potential impact by any large measure? The short answer, quite wonderfully, is no. Within minutes of Rogers’ announcement, Twitter was ablaze with an outpouring of love, support and admiration for Rogers’ courage. US teammates Sacha Kljestan, Carlos Bocanegra, Omar Gonzalez and Benny Feilhaber were among the players who tweeted or released statements of support and praise. Internationally, Marseille firebrand Joey Barton tweeted out his support and admiration for Rogers’ courage. The US Soccer federation released a statement of praise for “all its players” who have had the courage to address this topic, and thanked Rogers for being an “outstanding representative” of his country as a player and human being. In other words, in having the courage to step forward, Rogers’ announcement served as a potentially pivotal example of the level of acceptance and understanding that currently exists with regard to gay rights and sexuality in the American soccer community. Should Rogers never play another minute, the reaction of this community alone will have been worth it. With one courageous act, Rogers may have paved the way for an athlete who thinks his sexual orientation and his career do not have to be mutually exclusive, and who decides there is still soccer for him to play. And that will make Rogers’ bravery even more important.
Cynics will suggest a soccer player making this announcement does not mean the door is open to openly gay athletes in other professional sports. Even in American soccer, there will be questions. Former Montreal Impact midfielder David Testo made a similar announcement in 2010, but never played a match after making his sexual orientation public. Perhaps folks are accepting when they don’t have to deal with the new reality in the locker room. Perhaps things will be different if Rogers does play again. Then again, with all due respect to David Testo, Robbie Rogers is a bigger name, and this is a bigger deal. This is an Olympian, an MLS champion and a US international. And the public response has been tremendous.
In a way, it is fitting that soccer be the Jackie Robinson testing venue for an openly gay athlete, whether that ultimately is Rogers or no. Globally, for all its flaws, soccer has long been an odd bedfellow with politics and, because of its immense global popularity, an enormous vehicle for social change. In America, the community that has embraced the game is demographically younger, more liberal in its social leanings, and, as a group, is typically well-educated. If the reaction to Rogers announcement is any indication, that door is open. Cynics might suggest the door opening in American soccer doesn’t open it for other players in more mainstream American sport. Despite the growth of the game stateside, there may be something to this. Then again, the reaction to Rogers’ announcement might, in a world increasingly influenced by social media and its attendant younger generation, might be surprisingly similar to an athlete in a bigger “brand” American sport. And Rogers’ bravery might open the door for a similar announcement in the near future. And that chance, that hope, is something. And it puts us, as a sporting culture, a little bit further away from the vitriol of Chris Culliver and a little bit closer to the type of culture I, for one, hope to raise my daughter in. One where sexual preference doesn’t invite vitriol and hate. One where the only measure of an athlete, or of any man or woman, is what they have to offer, as a player or a human being. If and when that day arrives, we’ll all need to tell our kids about Robbie Rogers. And say thank you.