Rogers reflects on season in the spotlight as a gay athlete

Robbie Rogers generally prefers to avoid reminiscing. Even this week, as he considered all that had happened over the past 12 months — his decision to announce his sexual orientation, his brief retirement and his return to soccer as the first openly gay male athlete in a prominent North American professional league — he interspersed his memories with sizable dollops of excitement about what lies ahead.

But as much as Rogers, 26, might prefer to avoid looking back on it, his decision to come out publicly in February — while at the same time announcing he would step away from professional soccer — was the spark for an extended public debate about how a gay athlete would be received in professional sports. That debate, he said, should continue.

When Rogers ended his retirement in May and joined Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy, he found a team and a league that were mostly welcoming. There were times, though, he said, when even some of his teammates unknowingly left him feeling a familiar discomfort.

“The guys were so supportive and it was great, but there were also times when the guys didn’t know they were being homophobic,” Rogers said in a telephone interview this week. “Maybe they didn’t know I was in the room, but they’d say things like ‘no homo,’ or they’ll say something is pretty fruity.

“It doesn’t really bother me, but it’s like they still need to learn. Someone that is closeted is very hypersensitive to that stuff, and if that’s going on in locker rooms where I am — and everyone knows about me — imagine what happens in other places.”

Rogers said that he had also heard occasional insensitive comments from spectators at games, and that he had received a slew of emails that he described as variously “hateful” and “just completely, totally, oh-my-god over the top.”

Ignoring those emails was easy enough, Rogers said. He spent more time reading the correspondence he received from other closeted athletes, many of them teenagers or young adults, who said they saw him as an inspiration.

That is part of the reason that Rogers, a midfielder, says he plans to continue playing. The rest of his drive stems from a belief that he can still be a top player despite struggling with injuries this season and failing to make a strong impact with the Galaxy.

Technically, Rogers was traded to the Galaxy by the Chicago Fire, who had retained his rights while he was playing in England before his retirement. The Galaxy sent forward Mike Magee to Chicago, an exchange that now appears lopsided: Magee finished with 21 goals over all, 15 for the Fire, the second-best total in the league. Rogers had none in 11 games.

Rogers said he did not concern himself with that aspect of the transaction — Magee had requested a trade to Chicago independently so he could be closer to his family — and would instead work on making his own impact in Los Angeles.

“Those positive emails from kids are probably the part of this that makes me most proud because I know I’m reaching people,” Rogers said. “I think if I play, it helps younger athletes and younger adults to have someone to see how it works. They can see that I’m a pro athlete, and they don’t need to be afraid to go after whatever dream they have.”

Rogers is working with a new entity, known as BeyondIT, that is seeking to raise money and awareness for nonprofit organizations that fight labels and stereotypes in society. One of BeyondIT’s first significant pushes will be the widespread distribution of a magnetic green bar, designed to be worn on shirts or lapels, that Rogers hopes athletes will wear at the Sochi Olympics. It will be a way to speak out against a Russian law that bans the distribution of gay “propaganda” to minors.

“We’re planning to work with Olympic athletes and other people in sports to be public ambassadors for the group,” Rogers said, adding that he was also hoping to have Jason Collins, the former N.B.A. player who also came out this year, work with the organization. “That’s a big part of what I’m hoping to work on during the off-season. I really hope we’ll have a lot of success and make an impact.”

The Galaxy were eliminated from the M.L.S. playoffs last weekend, but Rogers does not plan to be away from soccer for long. After a vacation, he said, he intends to resume training, already thinking of what next season might bring. The rest of his off-season will be devoted to other projects, including his advocacy work, his clothing line and a memoir. He is also still adjusting to the more basic aspects of life that come with no longer keeping his sexuality hidden.

“I’ve been dating someone for about four and a half months,” he said. “Until I was 25, I had never really dated someone that I was actually interested in, so that’s a new experience for me. We’ve gone out, I’ve brought him to meet my parents, all of that. It’s like all of this; it’s one of those things that I’d never really done before.”

From The New York Times

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