LOS ANGELES (AP) — Until about a month ago, Robbie Rogers had no interest in being one of the highest-profile openly gay athletes in the world.
Rogers didn’t want the pressure or attention, and he was weary of soccer itself. After coming out and simultaneously retiring in February, the former MLS champion and U.S. national team player planned to devote himself to fashion school and family, not soccer or social change.
Rogers told The Associated Press he changed his mind when he realized how much he still loved his sport — and how much good he could do by playing it instead of standing on the sideline.
“I don’t know what I was so afraid of,” Rogers said. “It’s been such a positive experience for me. The one thing I’ve learned from all of this is being gay is not that big of a deal to people.”
Rogers joined the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer on Saturday, agreeing to a multiyear contract in another step by openly gay athletes in professional sports.
The 26-year-old Rogers recently thought he would never pull on another jersey, imagining nonstop scrutiny and criticism. His concerns were eased by the strong support he received from family, fans and players, including Galaxy star Landon Donovan.
Now Rogers is eager to be more than a footnote. He is determined to thrive as the league’s first openly gay player.
“People are just really growing and accepting and loving,” Rogers said. “Those other things are just not that important to them. I think as the younger get older and the generations come and go, I think times are just becoming more accepting.”
The two-time defending champion Galaxy traded top scorer Mike Magee to acquire Rogers, an MLS veteran who spent the last two seasons in England. He trained with the Galaxy in recent weeks and hoped to continue his career in his native Southern California. The Galaxy made it happen by giving up the popular Magee in a trade with the Chicago Fire, who held Rogers’ MLS rights.
“I want to get back to soccer, which is what I love,” Rogers said. “I get to do something I love, and I get to help people and be a positive role model. I’m really excited to set a great example for other kids that are going through the same thing I went through. It’s a perfect world for me, a perfect world.”
Coach Bruce Arena thinks Rogers already is in decent shape despite 18 months with little match experience. Arena figures Rogers could be a strong contributor to the Galaxy by July, but he could play in any upcoming match.
“Certainly the league, and I think the fans, are going to be receptive in a real positive way,” Arena told the AP. “But we’re not in this to pioneer social issues. We’re trying to win games as a team, and we’re trying to produce the best team we can. Robbie has shown us that he has the potential to still be a real good player in our league, and that’s what we’re hopeful of.”
Rogers is mindful of the place he’ll take in the culture when he steps on the field this summer, but the skilled, speedy winger is even more excited to contend for MLS titles and another chance to play the U.S. national team — a stark contrast from his plans earlier this year when he was accepted to the menswear program at the London College of Fashion.
“I had a lot of fear to come back to the game,” Rogers said, remembering countless instances of homophobia everywhere from the stands to locker rooms. “I was just afraid I was putting myself in an environment that in the past had affected my mental health because I always felt like an outcast. I felt that I couldn’t be myself.”
“But it’s been amazing,” he added. “It’s been normal, just as it should be. I’m a soccer player. I happen to be gay, but I’m a professional soccer player, and I have been since I was 18, 19. … I’m just really excited to go back to the game, and excited to deal with these stupid stereotypes that are out there with athletes and the gay community, just a bunch of different things.”
He’s certainly not alone in this movement. NBA veteran Jason Collins came out late last month, and Rogers spoke with Collins on the day of the center’s announcement.
U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who plays for Lyon in France, came out last year before the London Olympics. She’s expected to join the Seattle team of the new National Women’s Soccer League in mid-June.
Brittney Griner, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft by the Phoenix Mercury, and Seimone Augustus of the Minnesota Lynx are among that league’s openly gay players. Sheryl Swoopes, a retired WNBA All-Star and current college coach, came out in 2005 during her playing days.
But any day now, Rogers is likely to become the first openly gay male athlete to play in North America’s biggest professional leagues, a fact that’s still a bit surprising to both Rogers and Collins.
“I would have thought more athletes would have taken that step, I guess,” Rogers said. “People have seen how accepting everyone has been of Jason’s and my story. I think it’s going to take just more time and more athletes coming out. It’s all about seeing that it’s not something to be afraid of. It’s not going to hurt your career.”
While MLS has a fraction of the NBA’s popularity, Rogers has the potential to be more influential than Collins or featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz, who has won two fights since coming out last year. Collins is a journeyman basketball player without a contract for next season, while Rogers is an accomplished international soccer player in his prime.
Rogers won an NCAA title at Maryland in 2005 and an MLS title with Columbus in 2008 while making the all-league first team. He has played sparingly over the past two years for English clubs Leeds and Stevenage after leaving the Crew in December 2011.
But his workouts at the Galaxy’s training complex in Carson, Calif., were enticing enough, even if Rogers acknowledged he’s “definitely a bit rusty right now.”
The Galaxy will work on getting Rogers back into top form, and they’ll also support him in his conspicuous new role.
“It’s going to take him a little time,” said Arena, also the Galaxy’s general manager. “He’s got to adjust to the Galaxy. He’s got to get himself in better form with the ball and his fitness. That takes time for any player, as we’ve witnessed with Landon over the last six to eight weeks. It’s going to take some time. We hope Robbie can turn the corner quickly.”
Rogers is joining his league’s highest-profile team, with Donovan and Irish captain Robbie Keane leading a roster expected to contend for a third straight championship. After six years as David Beckham’s home before the English midfielder’s departure last December, the Galaxy know all about the spotlight that will be cast on Rogers.
“There’s obviously going to be attention, and I think that we are no stranger to that,” Galaxy President Chris Klein told the AP. “I think the biggest piece of this is the maturity of Robbie, and we’re quite confident in that. We’re there to stand behind him as an organization. He has shown to be a guy that has a tremendous amount of character and integrity, and I think he’s going to fit our organization really well.”
The deal is a risk for the Galaxy, who traded a beloved fan favorite for Rogers. Magee, a Chicago native, has won two titles and scored eight postseason goals in four years with the Galaxy, and he leads the club with six goals this season.
But Los Angeles is enticed by the potential of Rogers, who has played 18 times for the U.S. national team, scoring two goals. He dreams of playing for the American team at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but knows it won’t happen unless he excels with the Galaxy.
Rogers immediately felt comfortable training with the Galaxy and resuming his friendship with Donovan, meeting the U.S. national team star for coffee. He’s also confident his attacking game on the wing can help the Galaxy, who haven’t replaced Beckham’s bending passes from the flank this season.
“They’ve been very accepting to me and very cool with me,” Rogers said. “I’m just excited to get on the road with these guys and continue the season.”
Aware that a whirlwind of attention is approaching, Rogers plans to lean on his faith. He also hopes his decision to use soccer as a platform for tolerance and acceptance leads more gay athletes to come out, even while his primary focus is on the game he has loved since his youth.
“You’re just going to be treated the same as any other athlete,” he said. “It’s going to take time, but it’s inevitable that the time will come when you’re solely judged on your performance. That’s going to happen. You can’t put a time frame on it, but I think it’s in the near future because I really have felt a shift in our society and acceptance in our sports world. I honestly think in the next few years, it’s not going to be an issue.”