ORLANDO, Fla. – When former United States national team player Robbie Rogers came out as gay while retiring from professional soccer last Friday (see story), the first reaction seemed to be one of shock.
The next reaction happened almost simultaneously: overwhelming support.
From his former teammates to his former rivals, from his friends to people he never met, from people in the United States to people in other countries, the soccer community united to offer words of admiration and gratitude to Rogers, who most recently played in England after five seasons in Major League Soccer.
Philadelphia Union captain Brian Carroll, who was a teammate of Rogers when both were with the Columbus Crew, was one of those players.
“I really enjoyed playing in Columbus with Robbie,” Carroll said during the Union’s preseason camp in Florida over the weekend. “He was an exceptional player for us and an amazing person. I give him all the credit in the world for handling his business how he sees fit. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Robbie and I wish him the best in all he does.”
Carroll said he had no idea that Rogers was gay while in Columbus but noted that it wouldn’t have been a problem even if he tells his secret, calling it a “complete non-issue.”
“I would love to have him on my team,” Carroll said. “I would welcome him back with open arms.”
Another Union midfielder, Amobi Okugo, had a similar stance when asked about Rogers. Okugo, who saluted Rogers on Twitter, said it was unfortunate that Rogers didn’t want to continue playing, in part because he believes he would do well as an openly gay player in the MLS.
“We’re all soccer players,” Okugo said. “We all have different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different morals. We’re all welcoming guys. When he comes back, if he comes back, he’ll feel at home.”
While others have come out after their athletic careers had ended, it’s been well documented that there has never been an active openly gay player in any of the five major professional men’s leagues in this country (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS).
Although it may be upsetting to some that Rogers –- who is only 25 and scored a goal for the U.S. national team against Mexico at Lincoln Financial Field just a year-and-a-half ago –- is deciding to hang it up rather than being a pioneer, the bigger story may just be the public support he received. That kind of support, after all, could make another closeted athlete feel more comfortable in his own coming-out process.
Joanna Lohman –- a gay soccer player who previously played for the Philadelphia Independence in the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer League –- believes it’s harder for men because of what she called a “very macho” locker room mentality. But she also believes the MLS seems well-suited to handle the first openly gay male player because it’s a relatively new league with “a lot of young, liberal, city-living fans.”
“It was absolutely phenomenal to see the support [Rogers got],” Lohman said. “Of all of the major men’s professional sports, I think the MLS is the most willing to handle a situation like this. I think it’s quite progressive when it comes to social awareness and social concepts.”
At the same time, Lohman understands why Rogers decided to step away from the game. While Lohman herself is comfortable with her sexuality, she knows it can be exhausting to try to hide a secret or be perceived as different, especially in other countries.
“I’m comfortable when I’m in a comfortable environment,” said Lohman, who met her partner, Lianne Sanderson, while playing with the Independence. “In America, it’s very comfortable. But when I go to India, I’m not gay. I’m not affectionate with my partner. I definitely have to be very careful how I operate and the vocabulary I use. You have to protect yourself. At the end of the day, you have to feel safe.”
For now, it looks like Rogers wants a different life where he feels safe and happy. Nobody should judge him for that. But even if he never plays again, his public declaration was still an important step in a movement that seems to be gaining steam every day.
“Everyone’s journey is different,” said Lohman, who will play for the Boston Breakers in the new National Women’s Soccer League this year. “I was really proud he was able to be one of the few people willing to say how they feel and who they are as an individual.”