Under ordinary circumstances, the retirement of a physically broken-down defender who never set foot or wonky ankle on the pitch this season would be filed under ho-hum.
The thing is, Robbie Rogers wasn’t your ordinary soccer player.
He was gay, out and proud, the sole openly gay man among the approximately 4,350 athletes listed on the 145 rosters that represent five major men’s professional sports organizations in North America. One in 4,350. So, yes, Rogers’ retreat from the LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer this week warranted more than a line or two among the transactions noted on the agate page of a newspaper’s sports section.
But what did we learn from Rogers’ time as an out athlete in MLS, and what does his departure mean in the grand scheme of things? What does it tell us?
Well, on the positive side of the ledger, Rogers’ tour of duty in Los Angeles became a myth-busting exercise, in that the notion that a professional men’s team could not achieve success with a gay man in the lineup was laid bare as a misguided and completely false narrative. The Galaxy, with Rogers an every-day contributor, won the MLS Cup in 2014.
But we also know that Rogers was no Pied Piper.
Since he came out in 2013, only two other openly gay men have surfaced—Michael Sam and Jason Collins. Neither lasted much longer than a hiccup. Sam was on the field for the grand sum of 12 plays with Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, while Collins finished the dog-eared days of a 13-season NBA career with the Brooklyn Nets.
At its basic, most-simplistic level, Rogers’ retirement means there are now zero openly gay men among the approximately 4,350 performing in the National Hockey League, National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and MLS. Zero.
There are, no doubt, gay men in all five leagues, but they remain closeted. And that’s what Rogers’ retirement confirms for us—homosexuality in professional sports remains strictly a male issue.
Women don’t have that gay hangup.
You’ll find open lesbians in the Women’s National Basketball Association (Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics married Amanda Clifton last week); in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League; in the National Women’s Hockey League; in the National Women’s Soccer League (Megan Rapinoe of the Seattle Storm is dating WNBA veteran Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm); and at the Olympic Games. And it extends beyond team sports. There are out lesbians on the pro golf and tennis tours. There have been for decades, dating back to Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova and beyond.
Here’s what LPGA tour pro Christina Kim says about lesbians in her 2010 book Swinging From My Heels:
“Because there’s never been an honest, open discussion about lesbianism on tour, it has become a source of fascination among many golf fans and especially male reporters who have only heard various rumors and innuendo. Contrary to what many people think, we are not the Lesbians Playing Golf Association. By my count there are no more than two dozen gay women playing the tour right now. Considering there are 230 active members, you’re only talking about 10 per cent of the players, which from everything I’ve read is in line with the population as a whole.
“To every player I know, the issue is just not that big a deal. There are no super-freaky homophobes out here or militant man-haters. At most, a player’s sexuality may be an occasional practice-round conversation piece: ‘Hey, did you hear that so-and-so likes girls?’ ‘Really? Huh. So, did you hit an 8-iron or a 9?’ ”
Men’s sports, with their culture of machismo and misogyny, can’t get to where the women have been for more than 40 years. Often, the male jock’s go-to taunt for an opponent is a gay slur. Still. In 2017.
“My only regret in my 11-year career are the years I spent in the closet,” Rogers said in his parting comments on Instagram. “I wish I could have found the courage that so many young individuals have shared with me in the past five years to live honestly and openly as a gay person.
“To all the women and men who are still frightened to share their truth with the world, I’d encourage you to come out.”
Should we care if athletes in the five major men’s team sports leagues come out in numbers? Absolutely. We should all feel comfortable in our own skin, and it shouldn’t matter with whom we share our bedrooms.
The playing fields of North America (male division) remain anti-gay, despite Robbie Rogers’ and the LA Galaxy’s best intentions, and that’s not only wrong, it’s shameful.