As alone as Robbie Rogers might’ve felt before revealing his true sexual orientation, he was surrounded by support immediately after making it public.
The response was overwhelmingly positive from the soccer community at home and abroad after the U.S. men’s national team midfielder and former Maryland Terrapin announced he was gay and stepping away from the game in a blog post titled, “The Next Chapter.”
More than just the closest it has come to the reaction for an active player coming out in a male team sport, it essentially sets the stage for when it does happen. Because there’s little doubt that it will.
“I do think that’s the next step,” said Patrick Burke, founder of the You Can Play Project, which is dedicated to inclusion in sports regardless of sexual orientation. “I think we’re very close. I’ve said that within the National Hockey League, it’ll happen within the next year or so, and I think the other sports won’t be too far behind. I think we’re very close to having openly gay members of the male team sports.”
Rogers, 25, parted ways with English club Leeds United last month. He had been in England for the last year after five seasons in Major League Soccer with the Columbus Crew, with whom he won an MLS Cup title in 2008. He also played 18 times for the U.S. men’s national team, scoring in a 1-1 draw with Mexico in Aug. 2011, and with the U.S. under-23 team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Rogers won an NCAA championship in his only season with Maryland in 2005.
“Try explaining to your loved ones after 25 years you are gay,” Rogers wrote. “…Now is my time to step away. It’s time to discover myself away from football.”
The former Terrapins who took to Twitter to back Rogers included Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza and Chris Seitz, part of a much larger swath of American soccer players and more.
“I am incredibly proud of Robbie,” Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski said in a statement. “He is a special human being. The outpouring of love that he has received is a clear indication of the unconditional support he has from everyone during this time. I love Robbie for Robbie!”
“Soccer and hockey are setting the pace on this issue in terms of being the most inclusive, most supportive from the athletes and the league,” said Burke, who is a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers. He is also the son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and brother of the late Brendan Burke, who came out in 2009 before being killed in a car crash in 2010. “It’s an interesting dynamic because I know the European leagues are having their own issues with this topic and with racism. But here in North America with Major League Soccer, the players, the clubs and the league have been tremendously supportive.”
D.C. United was the first Major League Soccer team to put out a “You Can Play” video last season and has supported similar efforts in the past.
The topic has been front and center recently, with San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver making anti-gay comments prior to the Super Bowl and Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant slamming a Twitter follower for using a homophobic slur.
“The important thing that came out of the Super Bowl was that people were talking about it,” Burke said. “You never like to see a player in any league say that gay athletes should be forced to stay in the closet, but the discussion that followed at all levels, with NFL players, within the larger sports community and media showed that sports is moving in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, the male team sports community waits for an active player to come out, but it’s already happened on the women’s side. U.S. national team midfielder Megan Rapinoe announced she was gay before last summer’s Olympics, and her teammate, Lori Lindsey, who will play for the Washington Spirit this spring, gave an interview last fall to Autostraddle.com that clarified what she says has never been a secret.
“Welcome to the family,” Lindsey said on Twitter to Rogers, who she doesn’t know personally.
It is unclear whether Rogers, who battled injuries last year, might eventually return to the game. The players who rallied following his announcement don’t want his sexuality to be the reason he stays away.
“I would like to see, if Robbie does choose to come back and he’s able to, how he performs because I think with Megan it was huge,” Lindsey said. “She felt free. I think she felt very confident that she came out and people knew who she was, that she expressed that on the field, and she had a wonderful Olympics.”
“Thank you everyone for all of the support and love,” Rogers said late Friday in a second tweet. “Wasn’t expecting this.”