Robbie Rogers' legacy as a gay man extends beyond soccer

Robbie Rogers was back at Dignity Health Sports Park on Saturday. It wasn’t his first visit since playing his final game for the Galaxy eight years ago; his two young children, Caleb and Mia, love coming to the games, he said.

Yet it was the first time he came to the stadium to receive a bobblehead in his likeness, sit in the president’s suite and celebrate Pride Month by taking part in a national television broadcast on Apple TV.

“We know how special a player he was and how much he meant to our organization,” Galaxy president Tom Braun said.

In 2013, Rogers became the first out gay male to play a game in a major U.S. professional sports league. It was a historic moment, one that seemed a harbinger of things to come. A month earlier Jason Collins, an NBA free agent, came out as gay in a Sports Illustrated interview. Less than three months later Michael Sam, a standout defensive lineman at the University of Missouri, came out to his teammates. He would soon become the first out gay player selected in the NFL draft.

Then, nothing.

In 2018, Minnesota United midfielder Collin Martin came out, but he would play fewer than a dozen games in MLS after that. In 2021, the Raiders’ Carl Nassib announced on Instagram that he was gay. He played two seasons with the Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then retired.

Eleven years after Rogers’ Galaxy debut, there are no out gay players in the country’s five major professional sports leagues. What should have been a defining moment is now little more than a footnote.

“I guess I’m a little sad, you know?” Rogers said.

Approximately 7.6% of the adult population in the U.S. is LGBTQ+, according to Statista, which suggests many professional teams have a gay player or two in their locker rooms. The courage that Rogers, Collins and Sam showed was supposed to allow them to be honest and open about who they were. Anyone who has had to hide something as self-defining as their sexual orientation will tell you the pressure is suffocating and their performance has suffered as a result.

Rogers was handicapped by it. Three months before being welcomed to the Galaxy, he walked away from second-tier English team Leeds United, announcing his retirement in a 408-word post on his blog page in which he revealed he is gay and talked about the emotional toll keeping that secret had taken on him.

Returning to play with the Galaxy freed him and, he thought, freed others to come out publicly.

“Obviously we were wrong,” he said.

Yet that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been progress. Rogers’ debut with the Galaxy changed things, but it a subtle way.

Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of the website and one of the journalists who has most closely chronicled gay athletes in the U.S., remembers watching Rogers’ first practice with the Galaxy.

“Robbie was kicking the ball around with his teammates and they laughed and they practiced and there was nothing to it,” he said. “What I realized that day is that things had already changed. This was the first time the media saw an out gay man in a major pro league and it was just so normal.

“I realized we’ve been getting it so wrong.”

Zeigler has since been proved correct over and over again. Nearly every time a gay high school or college athlete has come out to teammates, coaches or the public, they’ve been met with warmth, respect and support — just as Rogers was.

“With our team, it was just understood right away that there was no tolerance for any discrimination,” said Landon Donovan, who was an outspoken leader on the Galaxy squad Rogers joined. “It was never an option to allow that to happen.”

Donovan chose an understated way to highlight that ahead of a team dinner shortly after Rogers’ arrival. The time and place for the meeting was written on the dry-erase board in the Galaxy’s locker room, alongside the admonition “no wives or girlfriends,” which Donovan edited to include “no boyfriends.”

Everyone was in this together.

“It was just a human being going through something challenging and we wanted to help him,” Donovan said. “We were just treating a teammate they way he should be treated.”

The two men, who briefly played together on the national team, soon became allies.

“Landon was such a supporter and really helped me feel comfortable coming back,” Rogers said. “We had coffee and we texted about it and I asked him questions. He was very interested in talking to me about my experience and to see how I was doing.”

Fast-forward seven years. Donovan is the first-year coach of the San Diego Loyal, which is fighting for a playoff berth in the USL Championship. In first-half stoppage time, Junior Flemmings of the Phoenix Rising shouted homophobic slurs at Martin, whom Donovan had signed to his first roster. Before the start of the second half, Donovan announced his team would forfeit the game and its playoff hopes rather than share the field with Flemmings.

Donovan credits Rogers for that decision.

“When you’re close to somebody who shared a bunch of stories about how hard it was for him to be treated that way, then something like that happens a few years later to one of our players, yeah, there’s no question,” Donovan said. “Anytime you know someone’s story, you’re going to have more compassion for them.

“And so knowing Robbie’s story gave me even more compassion.”

So while Rogers might not have inspired other professional athletes in the five major leagues to come out in droves, he has clearly had an impact. Various minor league baseball players have come out, to widespread acceptance from their teammates. So have coaches and officials at both the professional and college levels.

Three years ago Outsports did a study with the University of Winchester and the Sports Equality Foundation examining the coming-out experiences of 820 high school and college athletes in the U.S. and Canada. Less than 5% said the reaction of teammates and coaches was negative.

That response would have been unthinkable before Rogers.

After an ankle injury forced him into a second retirement from soccer in 2017, Rogers, now 37, embarked on a hugely successful second career as a father, husband and executive in the entertainment industry. In 2017, he married writer/producer/director Greg Berlanti (“Dawson’s Creek,” “Love, Simon”) — something he couldn’t have done legally in California when he joined the Galaxy — and the pair had two children through surrogacy.

Rogers went on to become an executive producer on the critically acclaimed Showtime miniseries “Fellow Travelers,” a political drama and gay love story rolled into one, and “My Policeman,” the 2022 gay drama on Amazon Prime Video. Before that he was a producer, alongside Berlanti, on the CW drama “All American,” inspired by the life of former NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger.

“Robbie Rogers will be remembered as one of the most important figures in the acceptance of gay men,” Zeigler said. “Robbie has made sure that telling the stories of gay men and culture is central to his career in entertainment. So when you look at what Robbie did in sports and entertainment, you will struggle to find somebody who has had as great of an impact.”

In a phone conversation, Rogers came off as happy, confident and finally at peace with his life. He also loved the bobblehead.

“It worked out better than I dreamed,” he said. “So I feel really lucky. I’m still living in a dream where I have family and kids and I got to have an incredible soccer career and now have this career telling stories about things I’m really passionate about. I just feel incredibly grateful.”

Perhaps that’s the best legacy of all.

You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the “Corner of the Galaxy” podcast.

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