The true story of why professional soccer player Robbie Rogers had to retired immediately after coming out as the UK’s only openly gay top flight professional soccer player.
It was only this February that the then Leeds play who has also represented the United States in 18 international football matches, opened his heart and revealed his true sexuality, then promptly walked away from the beautiful game. In his first interview for UK media since he came out, he explained his hurt, anger and how it is still virtually impossible for gay players to come out and remain in the game.
Robbie Rogers is a long way from home and the self confessed Californian dude who grew up playing soccer, surfing and going to church faces a somewhat uncertain future after his recent revelation which stunned many in the professional football world. “Life is simple when your secret is gone. Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work, the pain from avoiding questions, and at last the pain from hiding such a deep secret.” Robbie wrote on his website, “Secrets can cause so much internal damage,” Rogers wrote. “People love to preach about honesty, how honesty is so plain and simple. Try explaining to your loved ones after 25 years you are gay.”
As soon as those words were out there in the public domain, Rogers instantly became only the second gay footballer in Britain to ever publicly come out. The first was the late Justin Fashanu, whose experience after coming out was far from celebratory and positive. He faced a saver backlash from colleagues inside the professional footballing world and his family, including homophobic brother John, turned their backs, Justin took his own life in 1988, hanging himself at home in Shoreditch, London. Coincidentally, just a short walk from where Robbie Rogers now lives.
Since coming out, Rogers says he’s been besieged by large offers of money for expose type interviews and contracts, as well as moving emails from thousands of people who have thanked him or asked for advice on coming to terms with their sexuality. Last weeks interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper marks the first major interview since coming out and readdresses some of the issues his declaration raises. Not least the difficulties that professional sportsmen and women face when coming out publicly. “Football is an amazing sport,” Rogers says. “But it is also a brutal sport that picks people up and slams them on their heads. Adding the gay aspect doesn’t make a great cocktail.”
The interview poses the question what would have happened if Rogers had still been playing for Leeds when he came out? “That would have been interesting,” he says wryly. “I don’t think I would have been able to go training the next day. That would be so scary. The guys might have said, ‘That’s great, Robbie.’ Maybe. But because no-one’s done it and because of the things I’ve heard in the dressing room I just thought: ‘I need to get away from this – make my announcement, find peace, go from there.’ So I can never imagine announcing that at Leeds.”
Would it have been different if he were back in America? “No. Not at any club – anywhere.” He says emphatically. It is true to say that In almost all sport, especially at a professional level there is a certain about of bravado and banter, but even light hearted banter can be callous and hurtful, “There were different emotions.” Rogers explains when asked how he reacted when team mates made homophobic quips and jokes. “Sometimes I would feel bad for them. Sometimes I would laugh because it was kinda funny. And, sometimes, it got malicious.”
“That was when I would get this awful feeling in my stomach. I would turn my head and try to chat about other things. They often don’t mean what they say. It’s that pack mentality – they’re trying to get a laugh, they’re trying to be the top guy. But it’s brutal. It’s like high school again – on steroids.”
The fear of hostility from team mates is one issue that prevents more gay soccer plays from coming out, another would be the reaction from the supporters. “Maybe a lot of fans aren’t homophobic. But, in a stadium, sometimes they want to destroy you. In the past I would have said: ‘They don’t know I’m gay so it doesn’t mean anything.’ But, now they know it, am I going to jump in the stands and fight them?” Indeed homophobic chanting from the terraces is regular occurrence during many games up and down the country on a Saturday, despite various campaigns to combat homophobia in the sport.
Rogers came to the realisation that “In football it’s obviously impossible to come out – because no-one has done it. No one. It’s crazy and sad. I thought: ‘Why don’t I step away and deal with this and my family and be happy?’ Imagine going to training every day and being in that spotlight? It’s been a bit of a circus anyway – but that would have been crazy. And you wouldn’t have much control because clubs are pushing you in different directions. I was just fearful. I was very fearful how my team-mates were going to react. Was it going to change them? Even though I’d still be the same person would it change the way they acted towards me – when we were in the dressing room or the bus?”
It would be incredibly powerful if a gay footballer could face down that hate and abuse – just as black sportsmen like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali stood up to racism in America. “Sure,” Rogers says. “I’ve thought about that. I might be strong enough but I don’t know if that’s really what I want. I’d just want to be a footballer. I wouldn’t want to deal with the circus. Are people coming to see you because you’re gay? Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: ‘So you’re taking showers with guys – how’s that?’
“If you’re playing well it will be reported as: ‘The gay footballer is playing well.’ And if you have a bad game it’ll be: ‘Aw, that gay dude … he’s struggling because he’s gay.’ Fuck it. I don’t want to mess with that.”
Thoughtfully when pressed on the possibilities of other gay footballers, Rogers says “No. Even now, one of my best friends said: ‘Do we know anyone else in football who could possibly be gay?’ And we couldn’t think of anyone. We’re such great actors because we’re afraid to let people know who we are. We’ve been trained by our agents how to do interviews, how to present ourselves. No footballer has since said to me, ‘Robbie, thank you, I’m gay too…’ I don’t know if anyone will.”
“I know things will change. There will be gay footballers. I just don’t know when and how long it will take. The next step is how do you create an atmosphere where men and women feel it’s OK to come out and continue to play? It’s a great question. Football has so much history. It’s a great sport with so much culture and tradition. But I’m positive there will be changes.”
The full interview can be read at The Guardian website here.